A town near where I live has decided that they’ve had enough of profanity in public and has passed a law that could get you a $20 fine for using off-color language while out and about. According to the local newspaper, “Officials in Middleborough say it's not intended to crack down on free speech or censor private conversation but, instead, is in response to the loud, profanity-heavy language used by teens and young adults in the town.” I’m not sure how I feel about this.
On the one hand, I agree that many teens and young adults can be loud and can use “profanity-heavy language.” I also agree that it can be offensive at times and I was especially sensitive to it when my kids were younger. Unfortunately, I learned they were hearing this stuff every day on the school bus and in the hallways around school. Most PG and PG-13 movies have some kind of profanity in them (a PG-13 movie can drop the F-bomb up to four times as long as it doesn’t have a sexual meaning), so kids hear it in movies, too. Let’s be real. Kids are hearing it at home from their parents, too, and quite a few, let’s say “more mature” adults, can use as much profanity as younger people.
On the other hand, I don’t agree with a law like this because you cannot legislate morality, just like you cannot outlaw stupidity. Teenagers have always had their own sayings, phrases, words and terms of profanity. I’m not going to lie; we did, too, when I was a teenager. Here’s the difference between now and then: we were respectful to adults around us, especially elderly people, while today kids just blurt it out without thinking twice. When we used to take the bus to the mall in the next town, we talked amongst ourselves and goofed around, but we never swore in front of an elderly woman, let alone dropped the F-bomb.
I remember one time during the winter when we went to play ice hockey and I got asked to play with the older kids. I knew it was only because they didn’t have enough players, but I didn’t care. I was playing with the big guys. However, I wasn’t doing that well and at one point I gave away the puck to someone on the other team who then scored a goal. In the meantime, I did one of those moving-every-part-of-your-body-moves to try and keep my balance, succeeded for a brief moment, then failed and went crashing down. Needless to say, everybody laughed and I was embarrassed. To compensate, and to make myself look cooler, I let out a string of profanities containing everything I could think of. One of the older kids looked at me and asked me if I even knew what half of the swears I just said meant. I mumbled that I didn’t, and he told me to go sit on the side for a few. I looked to one of my brothers for help and he just shook his head and told me to go. I don’t think I ever got back into that game again.
Later that day on the way home, my brothers talked with me about the incident. I learned that you can’t just blurt out a string of profanity in public any time you want, that you have to exercise a little self-control and watch what you say. I got home a little wiser; humbled, but a little wiser. Things like this happened occasionally when I was a kid, in organized sports leagues, around the neighborhood, and at school. It didn’t take a $20 fine to curb our profanity 40 years ago. All it took was someone willing to speak up and tell us to watch our language, or to pull us aside and ask us how our Mom would feel if she heard us speaking that way. The look on her face would have hurt a hundred times more than shelling out $20. That would have been too high a price to exercise my right to free speech.