Pardon Your French

Star Tannery, Virginia — When reading about 15-year-old McKay Hatch and his success in establishing a “no cussing” week in Los Angeles, we all probably reacted the same way: Good luck with that.

Hatch began by establish a No Cussing Club at his school, then went big time as the media picked up on his story – and his plight. Doctors who have advised addicts to give up their crutch didn’t receive as many death threats as Hatch’s family when the boy suggested everyone try to give up their cussing habit.

While it’s refreshing that someone his age recognizes this area of civil decline – and you’ve got to give the kid credit for bucking a peer system that was raised on the constant censorship beeps of Comedy Central – most people in LA will probably go about their business much like they do every other week.

Before we leave our young Quixote to his linguistic windmills, though, his tenacity deserves at least a moment of our attention and consideration of the issue of cussing.

We’re not talking censorship here. That’s a whole other thing, dealing with artistic expression (or lack thereof) and freedom of speech. By all means, Catcher in the Rye belongs in the high school library. And a censored Goodfellas would lose its edge, if not credibility. Censorship leads to asinine situations like banning James Joyce from teenagers’ reading lists, but allowing graphic descriptions of genitalia on South Park so long as they don’t use the four-letter word for it.

What you read or watch are personal or parental choices that no one has the right to take away.

The issue is really the use of certain words in normal discourse and their impact on those within earshot. Anyone who has experienced emotional abuse can tell you of the pain that words can inflict – even words that would not be considered profanity. But there is no denying that what we say matters, whether you mean them to or not.

“They’re just sounds,” one of my sons used as an argument back when he was stretching his lexical legs. “Just words that for some reason we deem wrong.”

“Just sounds?” I asked. “Try uttering something that sounds like the ‘n’-word and see if everyone agrees with you.”

Words you hear or read have histories behind them and evoke emotion just as strong as any of the other senses. A picture of Adolf Hitler is not just a photo of a man with a funny mustache; the smell of gas is not just another fragrance wafting in the air; and referring to a woman as a “bitch” carries a negative image – unless she’s vying for Best in Show at Westminster.

I am by no means a prude. Like everyone, I went through the teenage profanity testing period; but I never quite got the hang of it on a regular basis. When I cussed, people laughed – at me (except my mother; but that’s a different story). In the back of my mind were all the words that more concisely conveyed what I was feeling. So I never got the cathartic release from cussing that veteran ranters describe.

I suppose I’m not sophisticated enough to be able to accept cussing as normal discourse though, frankly, very rarely is it used matter-of-factly. When I hear profanity I get an adrenaline rush akin to hearing my child ambiguously cry out – I’m ready to move into action, anticipating the worse.

We have a sort of stand-off in this house about cussing. I don’t at all; my sons limit their trash talk to their peers; and Dirtman – well, Dirtman is a special case. To his credit, he has never cussed at people – only things and situations. But, still, after all these years together, listening to one of his tirades is like being poked continually by a pointy object.

Mostly, though, the arrogance of cussing annoys me; that anyone thinks what they have to say is so important, so right, or so imperative as to command everyone’s attention with inflammatory words.

This is why I guess the internet community expressed the most outrage at Hatch’s crusade. Something about the anonymity of posting on the web turns everyone into a bombastic authority on everything.

And, while I can’t help but be moved by the 15-year-old, I’m fully aware that some reality show or movie producer will in the future offer him a truckload of money to publicly turn his anti-cussing crusade into a joke.

That, McKay, will be the true test of your integrity.

Copyright (c) 2007, SteelWill, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Spot On is a trademark of SteelWill, Inc.


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