Yesterday, on my way to work, I was listening to David Greene of Morning Edition on NPR, when he reported that in Middleborough, Massachusetts, the residents recently passed an ordinance that prohibits public profanity. The local police have been given the authority to impose fines up to $20.00 for loud public swearing in public parks and the downtown area. It appears that there have been a lot of complaints from Middleborough residents of people swearing loudly to one another in these places.
Needless to say, everyone and their third cousin has been weighing in on it. The American Civil Liberties Union will say that this may be violating free speech rights. Younger people will likely say this is silly and stupid and unnecessary. That swearing has become part of their everyday vocabulary. That they liberally punctuate their speech with it. So what’s the big deal? They will say that the ultra-conservatives are too traditional and easily offended. Older people are being too sensitive, rigid, and even controlling. “How dare they try to dictate how we are to conduct ourselves?”
There is obviously a lot of concern over this matter. The residents voted 183-50, in a town meeting, for the proposal to be passed along with publicly smoking pot. I went on to hear that there have been occasions where young people would hang out in public places, speak very loudly to one another at close distances, and swear at each other. It is obvious that a significant number of people find having to witness this unpleasant, even disturbing. One can argue that people can always walk away from the altercations. There is nothing preventing them from doing so. Why do these people, who are enjoying, say, a public park, have to be driven away by people who are being obnoxious and disruptive?
Or what about the people who are in line at a Starbucks to buy their coffee and they have to be subjected to loud expletives and offensive language that arguably, would be hard to ignore. Should they forego with their cup of joe and leave? Why do they have to leave? Why can’t these loud people just stop what they’re doing?
This is rife with arguments for freedom of speech. That no one should be “the boss of me.” The “I’ll do what I want, say what I want, when I want to, regardless of where,” attitude. Sounds juvenile? Irresponsible? I can see young people in a private social setting, punctuate their conversations with a swear word here and there, say for effect, for emphasis, for whatever reason, or no particular reason other than being comfortable with the people they are with. I don’t think, however, that this is the issue being addressed by the ordinance.
Some staunch civil liberties advocates will argue with you “thou shalt not trample on First Amendment rights.” This is sacred in the land of the free, home of the brave. This is what our forefathers have fought for with their lives.
While I have always argued that the abuse of something does not negate nor disqualify its use, I also believe that the abuse of freedom of expression can be just as confining and oppressing as the absence of it. Being subjected to repetitive, loud, and aggressive swearing can stress people out. It can cause their blood pressures to rise, their blood sugars to go all over the place, causing the release of insulin and a whole gamut of physiological reactions. Almost like a flight or fight response. It’s tantamount to harassment, really.
One can argue the same thing can result from being privy to an altercation between two private citizens in public, with or without the profanity. Or, having to put up with a toddler or young child behaving very badly, especially in confined spaces. Recently, on a long overseas trip, we had to endure a 12-hour flight with a young child, probably 3 or 4 years old, who was very clearly disruptive and out of control. She expressed her displeasure or excitement by screeching. Very loudly. When she was awake, which was most of the entire trip, she would either pound on her toys repeatedly or run up and down the aisle and touch people randomly. Her parents and other family members made no effort to curtail her activities. They thought it was all “cute.” They were enthralled! They failed to see the disdainful looks in other passengers nor the complaints when she screeched or screamed. She seemed to be of normal intelligence, judging from when she chose to speak normally. Now here, there was no public profanity. But it was definitely a disturbance. In an enclosed space. For an entire flight. Should these require an ordinance? (Where can I sign up to vote? After my headache subsides, of course.)
I can see why a $20 fine seems ridiculous. I can see how it may not alleviate the problem at all. What we are all lacking in our society cannot be cured by a police officer writing a ticket or a $20 fine. Teaching children to be sensitive to others and their surroundings starts at home, when they are young, and then at school. Normal children can sense and glean from their adult models when something is not appropriate. Have all our children become autistic in the sense that all these societal and behavioral nuances have to be spelled out, trained and retrained in order for it to sink in? It’s a very sad reality that this really boils down to a lack of respect and empathy. These are the fundamental principles of all civility that has given rise to social graces and decent behavior.
As NPR’s host said, when all else fails, good old washing the mouth with soap will always do the trick!
- Swear in public? It’ll cost you (nzherald.co.nz)
- Middleborough OKs $20 fines for swearing in public (bostonherald.com)
- Massachusetts town approves $20 fine for swearing in public (usnews.msnbc.msn.com)
- Paying the price for swearing (todayonline.com)
- Massachusetts town OKs $20 fine for swearing in public – USA TODAY (usatoday.com)
- US town votes in favour of fines for swearing (independent.co.uk)
- Mass. town OKs $20 fine for swearing in public (usnews.msnbc.msn.com)
- Swearing Is A Punishable Offense in Middleborough, Nannychusetts (independentsentinel.com)
- Should Swearing in Public be Fined? (snspost.com)