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Jewish World Review June 28, 1999 /14 Tamuz 5759

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Econophone

Michigan lowers the boom on swearing

http://www.jewishworldreview.com --
IN MICHIGAN, a man named Boomer ran afoul of the law for swearing when his canoe capsized. In a nation of high-school massacres, punishing bad language seems trivial to the point of absurdity.

But social decline always starts with seemingly mundane matters.

Tolerate graffiti and littering, and you'll soon get vandalism. Ignore property offenses, and crimes against people will follow. The weapon in a murderer's hand was loaded by a thousand modest surrenders to barbarism.

Last summer, Timothy J. Boomer was out paddling his canoe on a river north of Detroit. When the vessel hit a rock and overturned, the sportsman came up sputtering and uttering the "f-word" (according to prosecutors, at least 25 times). Families out boating with their children did not relish the experience.

Authorities in Standish, Mich., lowered the boom on Boomer, charging him under a 102-year-old law that makes it a crime to swear in front of women and children. (In part, the statute harkens back to those halcyon days when we believed in the concept of a nobler sex.)

Naturally, the most destructive force in the land, the American Civil Liberties Union, paddled to Boomer's rescue.

Kary Moss, the ACLU's Michigan gauleiter, warned, "If successful, the state will effectively criminalize speech which is heard every day on television and the streets -- it's trying to legislate morality."

But unlike TV sets, the louts who infest our streets don't have on/off switches. When they scream profanities, the less coarse are forced to endure it.

Does the public have rights here? Yes, said an Arenac County jury, which took less than an hour to convict Boomer earlier this month. The ACLU will appeal.

Moss is correct in one regard: In terms of the language we tolerate, society is on a downward spiral -- witness the new "Austin Powers" movie, with its payload of potty humor. News reports called the film the highest grossing comedy in its opening weekend, an apt description.

Like tobacco chewing, once upon a time cussing took place behind closed doors.

Today, kids shout the f-word on city streets. Motorists and pedestrians abuse each other in language that would shock pro-wrestling fans. Matrons mimic the locker-room banter of athletes.

Academics have their rationales for our uncivil tongues. It's said that society is more casual. Just as we have casual Fridays, our language is dressed down.

Stress shares the blame. The irritation of living cheek by jowl, the pressure of life at a lunatic pace, leads to angry explosions.

There are even psychologists who try to make a virtue out of vice, calling profanity "the language of empowerment." They claim it makes traditional underdogs feel tough and allows them to strike back at the system.

Call it, rather, the language of intellectual impoverishment. Swearing in public is a stark admission of an inability to communicate in as rich a language as English. Just as any idiot can tell a dirty joke, it takes no imagination or felicity of expression to curse.

Letitia Baldridge, the etiquette expert (who isn't burdened with a Ph.D.), has a better explanation: "It's the I-I-I, me-me-me thing. What I feel is all that matters. I don't have to follow codes." I'm tough, I'm cool, and I don't play by the rules.

Self-indulgence lies at the heart of lawlessness. The criminal begins with the supposition that no one matters but himself -- that he can scream, shove, throw trash out car windows, change lanes on top of you without signaling or swear in public, and others have to take it.

Which is not to say that bad language is the first step on the road to ruin. But civility (not manners, really, but consideration for others) is a bulwark against the forces of disintegration.

Self-control is a habit. Those who can't restrain the urge to swear in front of innocent bystanders are in danger of graduating to nastier stuff.

In our self-expressive society, is the degree of control required not to subject strangers to our own rendition of an HBO Comedy Special really too much to ask?

Were it capable of rational thought, the ACLU would realize that the First Amendment was written to protect political speech, not gutter language. The colonists put violators of public decorum in the stocks.

Fortunately, some communities still have standards. Let it be noted that in Standish, Mich., they held the line for civilization.


Up

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©1999, Creators Syndicate