Last month, the conservative journal National Review published a scathing article about Joe Biden. But the most shocking thing about the essay by Charles C.W. Cooke wasn’t the litany of offenses ascribed to the president, but the expletive the author used to describe him.

It was a word more associated with road rage than the art of persuasion.

A handful of National Review readers posted their objections to the “barstool talk,” with one expressing disappointment that the publication would “lower (itself) to the same crude level as the former president and many of his supporters by calling a sitting president such a name and making it to the centerpiece of your article.”

Others called the article “coarse and undignified, not what I expected from Mr. (William F.) Buckley’s journal” and said the magazine’s founder “is rolling in his grave.”

I thought as much, given Buckley’s reputation for civil and respectful debate. But when I looked into his record on profanity, it wasn’t quite as saintly as I’d assumed. In fact, over the years, National Review readers had taken Buckley to task for profanity he had occasionally used, and a book he published in 2007 had an even more explosive expletive in the title.

Still, with the publication of Cooke’s essay, it seemed the last tattered bastion of civility had perished in the public square. If a profanity falls in the forest of conservatism, and no one makes a sound, does that mean the battle for decorum and decency is lost?

It seems so these days, with conservatives from Donald Trump to Megyn Kelly to Tucker Carlson throwing profanity into their everyday conversation like Shriners tossing candy during a parade.

Popular culture, of course, has long been lost. Publishing is awash with books using profanity in the title as a gimmick, as well as books explaining why using profanity is good for us. Promoting its series on the “History of Swear Words,” Netflix says we will hear from celebrities “who weigh in on the joy of swearing.” And recently, one restaurant chain used an acronym for an expletive in a marketing campaign for a burger, despite the fact that, at least in Ohio, the DMV won’t allow the acronym on personalized license plates.

But .... National Review? National Review?

Is there anyone out there standing athwart profanity culture yelling stop at a time when no one is inclined to do so?

I found one man. His name is George Will. And the venerable columnist makes a compelling argument why Americans should get their language out of the gutter — like another George did 247 years ago.

‘A vice so mean and low’

Conduct a Google search of the words “against profanity” and there’s little that comes up except for the countercultural game “Cards Against Profanity” and an edict issued by General George Washington on Aug. 3, 1776.

In that order, the father of our country rued that “the foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing, a vice hitherto little known in our American Army, is growing into fashion.”

He called the use of profanity “a vice so mean and low … that every man of sense and character detests and despises it.”

There’s no record of whether Washington’s order made any difference, or if anyone dismissed him as a prude or a moral scold, as happens when anyone dares criticize profanity culture today. In a 2012 article about the history of swearing, NPR called people who object to profanity “moralists,” and it wasn’t a compliment.

“The moralists are correct about one thing, though: This language has become more widespread and more audible than at any time since the early 19th century,” NPR’s Geoff Nunberg said. This was more than a decade ago, before widespread podcasting and streaming enabled broadcasters to duck obscenity standards of the FCC.

Former Fox personality Megyn Kelly, for example, has said that she felt liberated when she started her podcast, on which she is able to swear freely. “I (expletive) love the swearing,” Kelly said last year.

Not only has profanity become more widespread and audible, as Nunberg said, but the time at which we’re exposed to it has changed, too. The FCC prohibits the broadcast of profane material between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., “when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.”

Kelly’s show airs lives on Sirius XM between 10 a.m. and noon MST.

Neither Kelly nor Cooke responded to emailed requests to talk about their use of profanity. But Washington Post columnist George Will was willing to take time to share why he thinks their use of profanity is a problem.

Will, who said he’s never used an expletive in his columns, acknowledged that “salty language has been appearing in impeccable places in English discourse since Chaucer” But, he said, “it’s obviously gotten worse in recent years.” We are increasingly coarse, he said, and increasingly indifferent to our coarseness.

A recent Desert News/HarrisX poll backs that up. While 68% of the oldest Americans — those 65 and older — say hearing profanity in public bothers them “a lot” or “some,” most young Americans aren’t troubled by it. 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.

A ‘lazy recourse’

Will recalled that the late newscaster David Brinkley once told him when he started in the business in the 1950s he wasn’t allowed to say the word “pregnant” on TV. Over the years, there has been some “Comstockian silliness” in standards of indecency, “however, it’s a far cry from not using the word pregnant to using the word (that Cooke used)” in National Review, he said.

Moreover, Will said, “The English language is the most rich and supple vehicle of communication the world has ever devised. Why we need to resort to this kind of language, given the resources of the English language, is a mystery to me.”

Why we do it, however, is less of a mystery, he said. Cable television lowered standards of public discourse when it “took the emancipation from regulation as a license to be emancipated from taste.”

“Then the internet made it much worse, because the internet offers an arena of free speech that is instant, often anonymous, unfiltered and unedited. That’s a recipe, given what we know about human nature — which is dark and forbidding — for wretched excess, and wretched excess is exactly where we are.”

People have employed once-shocking language as “lazy recourse” to the point where it no longer shocks, he said. “That’s my principal complaint. Not that it adds to the coarseness of society — it’s very hard to add to the coarseness of today’s society. ... The result is laziness on the part of people expressing themselves either orally or in writing. It’s never necessary. It’s the default position of people with impoverished vocabularies.”

The Buckley defense

Buckley himself disputed the maxim that only people with small vocabularies use profanity. “Did Shakespeare have a good vocabulary? yes; and he also used, however sparingly, profane and obscene words,” Buckley wrote in a 1973 essay entitled “On the Use of ‘Dirty’ Words,” published in “Buckley: The Right Word.”

However, Buckley, who died in 2008, lived during a time when the word “crap,” which he once used in print, was horrifying to National Review readers. After using the word, he wrote, “the irredentist hordes descended upon me in all their fury.”

Buckley also used, upon occasion, an expletive containing the word “God,” which he justified by saying “The meaning of words is established by their usage, which would suggest that blasphemy is defined by that which is intended, rather than by that which is spoken.” The word in question, he said, “is nowadays a simple expletive, an intensifier. It is that by cultural usage.”

It was that position, presumably, that allowed Buckley the moral elasticity to use this particular expletive in the title of a book, despite the fact that he was, by multiple accounts, a devout Roman Catholic who prayed the Rosary daily.

Related
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Profanity in public: What Americans really think

By that standard, National Review’s column on Joe Biden, in which Cooke called the president “a plodding mediocrity with a Delaware-sized chip on his shoulder,” could be excused for widespread “cultural usage.” But almost every expletive could, for that matter. Some might also justify Cooke’s language as a clever indictment of the president, given that parts of the essay address the profanity that Biden himself is reportedly quick to use with members of the press and even with his staff.

Are the sort of profane eruptions that Cooke and others have described different, or even worse, than the premeditated use of a profanity — “an intensifier,” as Buckley put it — in print or on a broadcast? That’s a topic for a “Firing Line” style debate.

But all uses of profanity contribute to the cheapening of our culture, and the abandonment of what, in the past, we have collectively regarded as good manners. We might not all possess the vocabulary and stylistic flourishes of William F. Buckley, but wasn’t there a time when we could have a conversation without cussing at each other? In some circles, the memory grows faint.

“If everyone talks like a refugee from Comedy Central, you’re going to have vulgar people,” Will told me.

Is there a way out of this cultural gutter? I asked.

“Parents,” Will said immediately.

But Megyn Kelly is a parent, I pointed out.

“Before she became so happily liberated, how did she suffer? How was her life impoverished by the fact that she couldn’t talk like a stevedore?” Will replied. “I mean, really.”

He went on: “You learn good manners at the dinner table. Of course, many Americans don’t eat dinner together anymore,” he said. “But you learn good manners, what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable, as a family. The family always has been, always will be, the great transmitter of social capital, including the habits, mores, customs, dispositions of a civilized society.”

And as for Buckley, a story he once told seems to have relevance today.

He had been approached after a lecture by a fan, a new subscriber to National Review who said that if Buckley would only “do something about all those long words, you will double ... no, triple your circulation.”

Buckley thanked him, but of course did no such thing. But a year later, he again encountered the man, who ebulliently thanked him for taking his advice, saying, “It’s made the magazine!”

Buckley wrote: “The moral here is really liberating. The unused muscle begins to work out. In January it hurts awfully, looking at all those unfamiliar words — like the first day of skiing, or tennis. In February, the incidence of such words is a little less, and you feel the relief. In March, it still happens to you, but only now and again. By June? — yes. You feel no pain at all.”

The same could be said of profanity in 2023.