Teenager’s No-Cussing Club Raises Interesting Questions

December 18, 2009

Apparently I’m late arriving to this “news,” but last school year 14 year-old high school student McKay Hatch of South Pasadena High School started the No Cussing Club to encourage students not to swear.  Interestingly, Los Angeles County subsequently commended him by declaring No Cussing Week in the County.  The LA Times did a feature on the student’s efforts, including the expectedly mature response of his fellow high school students when he started his club:

McKay took heat when he set up a registration table at the high school during club sign-up day.

“My dad didn’t want me to do it. He figured I’d be harassed,” he said.

“I got cussed out by about 50 people during club rush. But I had 120 people sign up. Later, a senior who had cussed me out apologized. He’s now the club vice president.”

Through his club Internet site, the boy has also been showered with pornographic and obscene rants e-mailed by opponents of his anti-cursing campaign.

His father deletes the obscenities when they come in.

The boy’s rough treatment was cited by Cacciotti.

“The proclamation is an opportunity to recognize and celebrate the courage he had to stand up for what’s right,” Cacciotti said.

While that seems to be a feel-good story, I’d like to focus a little more on South Pasadena Mayor’s remarks quoted in the feature:

“Lack of civility can erode a community. It’s one of the issues across America that affects even small towns,” said Mayor Michael A. Cacciotti, who Wednesday night proclaimed March 3 through 7 “No Cussing Week” for his city’s 25,824 residents.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Antonovich, who promoted a county-wide No Cussing Week, also commented:

Antonovich has no interest in ticketing the foul-mouthed. “It’s not enforceable,” said [Supervisor] Antonovich spokesman Tony Bell. “It’s like Breast Cancer Awareness Week. We want to remind people about their choice of words. Use different language — be kind; be civil.”

I find this interesting.  Preliminarily, I’ll note that swearing is usually distasteful, unnecessary, and probably harms the speaker more than he or she realizes.  Rather than merely giving up “cussing,” try giving up all negative slander and complaining about other people, as well as “venting” (angrily swearing), and see how your day goes; you’ll probably be happier. 

Even so, is discouraging “swearing” a proper aim of government?  I’m not speaking of United States FCC regulations on scarce broadcast airwaves or public school rules (those are different debates).  I’m referring to local government encouraging “civility” where there is no crime or infraction, or encouraging an anti-swearing movement (like the analogous “Breast Cancer Awareness Week” noted above).  Isn’t that for the PR folks and the media?  Young Mr. Hatch didn’t need the government to get his idea going, or to write his book discouraging the use of swear words and bullying.  Why is the government throwing in its two cents?  Not that I think civility is a bad thing. 

It may seem innocent enough now, but consider these existing, and potentially existing (just for fun), governmental “booster days/weeks/months” (without any legal enforcement, of course): “Smoking Awareness Month.”  “Drug Awareness Week.”  “Black History Month.”  “White History Month.”  “Respect for Life Week.”  “Reproductive Healthcare Day.”  “AIDS Awareness Day.”  “Gay Rights Day.”  “[LGBT] Day of Silence.”  “The Harms of Homosexuality Day.”  “Coming Out of Homosexuality Day.”  “Respect for Islamic Heritage Month.”  “KKK Understanding Month.” 

Ridiculous as some of those are, there are actually people that value or encourage the use of swearing, and the government is asserting that swearing is “uncivil” even though justice does not demand that such actions be punished.  All of these campaigns can be (and are) celebrated through private funds and PR efforts.  The government is not needed to further the success of these efforts.

Indeed, there are even Christians that believe that there is nothing wrong with swearing (noting arguments for “stress valve” release, the evolution of language, and the relativity of words).  One can definitely set forth an argument that words are merely symbols for ideas, and the idea behind “darn it” isn’t all that different from “damn it.”  Personally, I think there is a slight difference; one is said out of deference to those who might be offended by the term, the other is said in spite of those who might be offended (and in many cases is said to intentionally offend).  Swearing doesn’t really offend me unless it’s directed at Jesus Christ, but I choose not to swear because I think a mature person does not purposefully offend someone (if someone is offended by Christian beliefs, I’ll state them anyway, but not for the purpose of offending them; for the purpose of speaking the truth with love).  I also find the choice not to swear to be a good barometer of my self-control.  When I find myself intensely desiring to swear, I know I’m on the edge of self-control.  If a person chooses to swear all the time, he or she will appear rather out of control to many people, and that perception will not help that person in life.  But counter-arguments do exist.

In any event, back to the governmental issue.  The governmental “booster efforts” may not come with any enforcement (the government won’t actually punish your swearing, or make you accept these potentially offensive beliefs).  They probably will not really affect your life at all.  Even so, someone paid by your tax dollars spent time working on these projects, and these projects express an opinion on an issue that probably does not need governmental opinion (but see below).  The government may need to outlaw slavery or some other activity because justice demands it, but it does not need to go on a PR campaign against slavery or tell citizens how to think about slavery.  Popular opinion should be permitted to change, and government ought to follow it.

On the other hand, perhaps we want the government paying homage to that which the populace finds true and just?  Perhaps the populace in South Pasadena does value civility and does find swearing uncivil.  Americans have all sorts of governmental rituals and displays that affirm cultural (and according to some, eternal) truths without enforcing said ideas on others.  I have no problem with encouraging respect for God on our coinage, or a nativity scene at the Civic Center at Christmas time (I’m not really concerned about an offended atheist that hates the nativity scene, though I’ll fight to make sure he keeps his right to criticize the nativity scene and voice his dissent).  Is the nativity fundamentally different than No-Cussing Week?  Are these improper soul-making efforts, which should be kept to the realm of the church?  Or are they harmless reflections of the beliefs of the majority of public citizens?  The question, I think, deserves further reflection, more than a mere blog post.  But I’m inclined to think that local governmental respect for the beliefs of the citizenry is appropriate, and if a dissenter doesn’t like it, he should fight to change the citizenry’s opinion.

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