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Why some conservative media stars are cussing like sailors and Democrats

Megyn Kelly, Tucker Carlson and Meghan McCain are casually using words that you might not want your children to hear.

Illustration by Alex Cochran

Former Fox News personality Megyn Kelly says she enjoys having time to delve deeply into issues on her new talk show on SiriusXM.

She also enjoys something that might make some of her audience uncomfortable.

“I (expletive) love the swearing,” Kelly said recently in a discussion with another SiriusXM host, Michael Smerconish.

Although Kelly’s show airs from 10 a.m. to noon Mountain time — a time when parents might have preschoolers in the car with them — she’s breaking no rules when she cusses because Federal Communications Commission restrictions regarding obscene content don’t apply to subscription services.

As such, SiriusXM hosts and streaming services such as Fox Nation answer only to their listeners and advertisers, and so far, no one seems to be complaining.

Kelly is not alone in testing the boundaries of conservatives, who are often derided by the liberals as “pearl-clutchers” for objecting to obscene broadcasts, such as halftime performances at the Super Bowl.

Meghan McCain, the former host of “The View,” often uses profanity on Twitter, and Fox News star Tucker Carlson, in 2019, defended his use of profanity during an unaired exchange with a guest.

The profanities used by these and other conservatives sharply contrast with the pro-family messages they are often delivering, and puts them more in line, in this regard, with the liberals they frequently deride. Studies in years past have shown that Democrats were more likely to use profanity and to defend it. So why are conservative media stars suddenly talking like sailors and Democrats?

Megyn Kelly is pictured on the set of her show, “Megyn Kelly Today” at NBC Studios in New York on Sept. 21, 2017.
Charles Sykes, Invision/Associated Press

‘Perception of authenticity’

The most commonly offered explanation for the rising use of profanity in the public square can be reduced to four words: former President Donald Trump.

Trump’s use of four-letter words was derided in 2019 in “The Week” by Windsor Mann, who noted that C-SPAN posted a disclaimer saying that some people might find the language offensive in a Trump speech.

“Donald Trump is the first president to make C-SPAN unsuitable viewing for children,” Mann wrote. He went on to suggest that other political figures, such as Democrat Sen. Cory Booker were using expletives in imitation of Trump, whose vocabulary contains a variety of swear words.

But presidents other than Trump have cussed publicly, including Barack Obama, who once called Utah Sen. Mitt Romney an expletive in Rolling Stone magazine. (Of Romney, however, the magazine said, “His anachronistic language — all ‘gosh darns’ and ‘good griefs’ — is straight out of ‘Leave It to Beaver.’”

Michelle Obama has also used profanity in public, too, immediately apologizing for the slip, saying, “I forgot where I was for a moment.” Her gaffe, which occurred on a book tour after the Obamas left the White House, showed many people who cuss still draw a line between doing it privately and in public.

But that is changing for some conservatives, in part because they have become the new champions of free speech.

Legal scholar Wayne Batchis at the University of Delaware has said conservatives and liberals have “flipped the script” in the past 50 years as Democrats have become more willing to silence speech and Republicans voice outrage at censorship by social media platforms.

Comedian Joe Rogan, beloved of many young conservatives, is among the defenders of the right to use profanity in any setting. In 2010, he said that FCC regulation of obscenity is “nonsense.”

“It’s terrible to have words you can’t use around certain people, that you can’t use when you broadcast or you will be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s a gigantic distraction; it’s total mind control. It’s a technique that they’re using to try to control the population,” Rogan said.

A generational shift

Rogan’s show, “The Joe Rogan Experience,” is often the No. 1 podcast in the U.S., even though some people may hesitate to share it because of the profanity. On Reddit, one person asked others to recommend similar podcasts “so I can share with family and friends who find the swearing offensive.”

The offended, however, may be a minority.

“There’s been a broad, generational shift towards openness to using vulgarity and profanity, and tolerance towards others who do so,” said Paul Matzko, a historian and the author of “The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement.”

This is partly because of research that has shown that swearing, in moderation, makes the person using it seem more principled to others.

“(Swearing) increases the perceived probity of the speaker because it signals that the swearer is telling the unvarnished truth, not just being polite. And if there’s an attribute that younger generations value, it’s authenticity,” Matzko said. “Swearing creates a perception of authenticity, that someone isn’t holding back what they really think.”

And a 2018 book by Emma Byrne, “Swearing is Good For You,” argued that using profanity can reduce anxiety and the sensation of pain, among other benefits.

But there’s a caveat, Matzko added. “The word needs to be bad enough to signal that you aren’t a conformist, mindless worker drone, but it can’t be so bad that it signals you’re a hateful, offensive person,” he said.

In fact, there are still plenty of words that signal the user is a hateful, offensive person, but the words in this category are changing and are more likely to be racial or sexuality slurs than obscenities of old that involved excrement or blasphemy. This represents, he said, “the changing nature of the sacred in American society.”

Keith J. Bybee, a professor of law and political science at Syracuse University and the author of “How Civility Works,” agreed, saying “In an abstract sense, profanities still exist. What’s changed is what words are on the list.” He said he recently watched a film from the 1970s that contained no profanity. “But there were lots of words in there that if you said them today, they would get you fired.”

Another theory about why cursing is becoming more acceptable in mainstream society was posited in a 2017 paper by psychologist Jean Twenge and other scholars who found that books published between 2005 and 2008 were 28 times more likely to contain profanities than those published in the 1950s. The researchers believe that Americans are more accepting of crude language because of the increasing value they place on an individual’s self expression.

Where’s the manners police?

Scholars Melissa Mohr and John McWhorter have written books on the history of profane language, the definition of which is always in flux. Some words considered vulgar today were seen as inoffensive in medieval times, whereas at that time, swear words involving God were seen as blasphemous.

With no “manners police” issuing edicts about what can be said in what is often called polite society, there’s little consistency in standards, and the marketplace decides what’s appropriate and not.

“There’s going to be this low-level static all the time about what constitutes civil and polite behavior,” Bybee said. “We learn it and apply it on a de-centralized basis. But there are big changes that take place in civility and manners over time.”

That said, there are still conservative media personalities who spurn profanity, including Jennifer Kerns, a Newsmax contributor and host of ”All-American Radio with Jennifer Kerns,” who says that when she started doing radio, mothers told her they needed information that was “highly transportable.”

“My goal is to have a show that moms can listen to as they drive their kids to school, therefore it’s got to be clean,” Kerns said in an email.

“We are conservative talk radio hosts, so we have conservatives, families and religious audiences tuning in. I feel a higher calling in my career to live up to Christian standards,” said Kerns, whose show will be on iHeart Radio’s podcast network starting Nov. 1. “It’s easy not to curse on-air — it just takes some creativity and an impeccable vocabulary.”

Bybee said it’s too early to say a sea change in societal norms is occurring. But every generation bemoans what it sees as a decline in civility, Bybee said. “Our problem is not the absence of civility; it’s the profusion of civilities: the different ideas people have about appropriate behavior.”