Profanity in public: What Americans really think
A new Deseret News/HarrisX poll shows that most Americans don’t mind cursing in public, which is good news for Megyn Kelly, Tom Hanks and Tom Brady — but maybe not so great for America’s kids
When CNN announced the addition of Bill Maher to its late-night lineup, commentator Keith Olbermann had a question: “What about the profanity?”
That shouldn’t be a problem. Maher has a safe space for curse words on his HBO show “Real Time With Bill Maher” since subscription services, like cable TV or satellite radio, aren’t subject to profanity policing by the Federal Communications Commission.
And even on broadcast TV and radio, rules regarding profane material are relaxed between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., hours that children are generally thought to be sleeping.
But in truth, all of America increasingly seems a safe space for profanity. From Megyn Kelly to Tom Brady, celebrities regularly use terms from the list of “seven words you can’t say on TV” — a concept that now seems as antiquated as a rabbit-ear antenna. Flags deriding President Joe Biden with a profanity fly proudly on pick-up trucks. Sports fans routinely chant obscenities at referees for calls they don’t like. And former President Donald Trump used “bad” words so frequently that in 2019 Maher did a segment called “The Pro-Profanity President” — heavily salted, of course, with profanities.
Now, a new national poll conducted by HarrisX for the Deseret News shows that this constant bombardment of profanity seems to be having something of a numbing effect on our culture: A majority of us say it doesn’t bother us to hear profanity in public, with fewer than a quarter saying it bothers us a lot.
Not surprisingly, there’s an age gap when it comes to acceptance of profanity. Sixty-eight percent of the oldest Americans — those 65 and older — say hearing profanity in public bothers them “a lot” or “some.”
Their objections stand in stark contrast to young and middle-age Americans. Seventy-four percent of the youngest adults say profanity use doesn’t bother them at all, or only a little; and 55% of 35-to-49-year-olds say the same.
If the trajectory continues, it will be hard for the FCC to find any words that are “grossly offensive” to the general public once the baby boomers expire. As linguistics professor John McWhorter wrote for The Atlantic in 2019, when Beto O’Rourke was tossing out profanity like candy on the campaign trail in Texas, “the F-word today is spicy, but hardly evil or taboo.”
How did this happen? Some, of course, blame Trump for making salty language commonplace in the highest office of the land, even though he was not the first president to curse in public. (Rolling Stone magazine published “A brief history of presidential profanity” in 2012, even managing to pull Utah Sen. Mitt Romney into the mix.)
More likely, it’s been a combination of factors: the disproportionate influence and power that America gives to its youth, the ready mockery of those who object, and the creeping secularism that rejects any standard once associated with religious faith. (Cruz’s objection to O’Rourke’s language, for example, was dismissed in Ad Age as “strangely pious.”)
There is also the matter of what amounts to the pro-profanity lobby, social scientists and authors who paint swearing as something that is good for us, a useful tool that can help people feel more powerful, appear more authentic and experience less anxiety and pain.
There’s not much of a lobby for squeaky clean language these days.
Even people you might think could be hardliners against profanity, such as the highly principled happiness scholar Arthur C. Brooks, a devout Roman Catholic — make allowances for the practice. Writing for The Atlantic, Brooks recommended using profanity purposefully (as opposed to as a habit) and rarely.
Rare uses can certainly make a point — as when beloved actor Tom Hanks exploded last year at people who got too close to him and his wife — but they can also leave a negative image in other people’s minds. It’s hard to unsee Biden muttering an obscenity about Fox News reporter Peter Doocy.
But as the response to Hanks’ cursing shows, and the Deseret News/HarrisX poll confirms, for many Americans, a “bad” word is in the ear of the beholder. Many people applauded Hanks for cursing out the people who nearly tripped his wife, even as others thought it showed the actor in a bad light.
At 66, maybe Hanks should have known better. He’s part of the age group that has the smallest share of people who say it doesn’t matter to hear profanity used in public — just 12%.
Interestingly, it wasn’t the first time that Hanks was caught on camera using that particular profanity. In 2012, he let it slip out on “Good Morning America” and was clearly distraught, apologizing to “the kids of America.”
Just a little over a decade later, that response seems positively quaint.