The ouster of trash-talking Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci from the Trump White House reinforces one of my strongest beliefs, which is that foul language is still foul.
Scaramucci’s 11-day tenure may have set a welcome record for the fastest in, fastest out of a supremely unqualified White House staffer. His tirade against chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon, during an interview with Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker, contained enough expletives to blow up a Trump Tower, and was published last Thursday on the magazine’s website with no tidying up of the expletives.
I imagine that aside from his NC-17 language, Scaramucci would still have been kicked out after the interview broke. He revealed himself as a man of incredibly poor judgment and an almost maniacal meanness. This guy was going to be a Communications Director? Wow, just wow.
Still, let’s face it: expletives in everyday talk have become epidemic. The definition of vulgarity has been defined increasingly down. I hope that the egregiousness of the Scaramucci episode might be a wake-up call that language still matters.
Admittedly, I’ve always been sensitive to harsh language, even though I grew up in a home where the worst expletive ever uttered – and that only in extremis, such as when the UCLA Bruins had just fumbled the ball at the ten-yard-line in the fourth quarter – now barely rates an ellipsis after the first letter in print. I already miss those fast-disappearing ellipses, which now appear as almost quaint.
When I first wrote about the topic of profanity about a dozen years ago, offering tip sheets to parents and teachers to help prevent or discourage swearing among kids, the studies I found about the impact on profanity almost uniformly agreed: the more people swore, the more they became desensitized to the inherent anger in those words, and the angrier they became as people. People who swore without restraint were usually seen by others as less intelligent, disciplined, and unhappier than their cleaner-talking friends and neighbors. Revisiting this topic just last week, I discovered that newer studies dismiss profanity’s desensitizing impact. Instead, researchers pat profanity-users on the head. Swearing is just cathartic, they say. It feels good, and is therefore good for you.
There’s a time and a place for profanity. I like the old-fashioned times and places: the battlefield, the moment when you accidentally drop a heavy book on your foot, and “Ouch!” just won’t cut it. Those days are gone, but everyone knows that language counts, it’s just that we’ve become oddly selective about what words and phrases cause outrage. On college campuses, you can hardly say the word “white” or “American” or “rape” without mass fainting spells and demands for punishment for the speaker. Racial epithets, which are terrible and dehumanizing, are still somehow okay if used by someone of the same race. But we are also euphemism-happy, calling a used car “pre-owned” and referring to a job firing as a “department realignment.” That politician didn’t lie, she “misspoke.” And on and on.
The free-flying and promiscuous use of foul language – as verbs, nouns, adjectives, as anything and therefore as nothing – is only making our uncivil society less civil than ever. And our kids are listening, copying our actions and our words. Do we really want to live in a society where everyone is swearing all the time? If we do, what words will we have left to express true outrage, anger, fear or frustration? They’ve all been used up, empty and yet coarse at the same time.
How ironic that we are increasingly careful about what we put into our mouths, fearful of GMOs, pesticides, additives, and food dyes, but heedless of the words we are spraying like verbal toxins into the atmosphere? If we are what we eat, aren’t we also what we speak?
Judaism recognizes this truth. The laws of lashon hara, literally “bad speech,” are vast and intricate. They cover everything from implied insults to name-calling and certainly any outright profane language. The laws are so sweeping because it’s our speech that makes us human, and our words can hurt, or our words can heal.
Isn’t it time to rethink our promiscuous use of profanity?
Judy Gruen’s forthcoming memoir, The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith, will be published September 5. Her work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Aish.com and many other media outlets.