While I was talking with our longtime contributor Hadley Arkes this month, he quoted a statement that I haven’t been able to get out of my head: “One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.” It’s a simple maxim, easy to remember, with balance and brevity plus the air of a schoolmarm’s reminder. You can be discriminating in your taste, but don’t impose it on others. That mass-produced pop song that annoys you is a lovely aria to someone somewhere.
I think of this truism every time a booming, huffing car rolls down the street, windows open and the bass blasting an ominous beat. Or when Bill Maher, Howard Stern, or Madonna appears on a screen. I think they’re vulgar, but that’s just me. Or so the Supreme Court says.
The line dates from the 1971 case Cohen v. California, which turned on whether a man who entered a Los Angeles courthouse wearing a jacket marked “F—- the Draft” could be arrested for “offensive conduct.” The Court said “No,” reversing a lower court ruling. The jacket didn’t qualify as obscenity, Justice John Marshall Harlan reasoned for the majority, because it had no “erotic” content. It wasn’t “fighting words,” either, because Cohen’s message wasn’t directed at any particular person, and there was no evidence that anyone was “violently aroused” by the jacket.
Anyway, it didn’t really impinge on anyone. While the law shelters people from offensive intrusions in private spaces, in public we can deal with them on our own easily enough. As Harlan put it, people “could effectively avoid further bombardment of their sensibilities simply by averting their eyes.” Even though the man communicated a “scurrilous epithet,” an “execration,” an “unseemly expletive,” the burden falls on others to escape it.
Harlan acknowledged that licensing this language might bring about “verbal tumult, discord, and even offensive utterance.” But he brushed aside the concern that public life may be flooded by vulgarity with a sanguine faith: “That the air may at times seem filled with verbal cacophony is, in this sense, not a sign of weakness but of strength.” When we overlook these lapses in decorum, what we lose in propriety we gain in a more “open debate.”
More openness, more freedom, fewer boundaries and restraints. Clear distinctions between high and low, polite and rude, must go. It’s the great call of the second half of the twentieth century that our editor in chief has often remarked on in recent issues of First Things. This time the wall that comes tumbling down is an aesthetic one, the separation of vulgar from lovely, crass from tasteful. Even the ordinary scruple that asks people to watch their words in public places where grandmothers and children mingle is now treated as an undemocratic restraint. It’s not that Harlan and the four justices who signed on to the opinion want more profanity in the public square. No, they just believe that fast rules against it might foreclose a fruitful discussion or a civic advance of some kind.
Liberalism hails such openings as, precisely, liberalization—a liberation, in fact. To countenance off-color idioms is to affirm free speech; they evoke richer expressions of the modern condition. People should feel free to express themselves; it’s elitist and uptight to be squeamish about earthy expletives. When I get so annoyed or anguished or exuberant that only a four-letter word will do, well, now I can do it and not have to choke down my feelings.
This sounds like a forward-looking acceptance of the human comedy, a better coordination of private impulse and social space. It’s positive, we are told, it’s healthy. Lenny Bruce and George Carlin unshackled us from puritanical mores, which are really only conventions that a mature society should outgrow.
And here we are, forty-six years after Cohen, with waves of nasty tweets out of Hollywood, speakers at the Lincoln Memorial shouting curse words to righteous crowds, and the most popular songs on college campuses spewing language that would make Carlin shudder. Even liberals agree that the public sphere looks anything but more capacious and expressive and pluralistic. They reject, reflexively, any speech restrictions based on aesthetic norms, but they too regret the coarseness and incivility. The head of the National Endowment for the Humanities under President Obama organized a national “Civility Tour” to stem the epidemic of American nastiness.
The Court should have known it would happen. We didn’t need a half century of Jay-Z, Tarantino, Jon Stewart, and other purveyors of ripe swearing to realize that knocking down barriers is easy, but holding back ever more “transgressive” crossings is hard. The acceptance of what Justice Harry Blackmun in his dissent called “Cohen’s absurd and immature antic” was not a sign of progress. It was a confession of weakness, a loss of will, not a mark of civic strength. Justice Harlan admits as much in his own opinion when he doubts the very distinction between vulgar and non-vulgar—or rather, our capacity to draw it. “How is one to distinguish this from any other offensive word?” he asks.
I have heard this kind of question many times in my academic career (“Who’s to say . . . ?”). At first I took it at face value as a genuine intellectual challenge: On what grounds can we divide x from y? I approached the query philosophically as if I were arguing over a missing criterion. No longer. The problem is not that of finding a logical or epistemological difference between the vulgar and the decent (“How do we know it? How do we justify it?”).
Let’s be clear about Harlan’s excuse, that of allowing profanity because it might enhance public discourse. The rationale is bogus. The old liberal slogan of “I hate what you say, but I defend your right to say it” applies to contrary opinions and arguments. But profanity doesn’t open up the range of opinion and expression. It closes it. It doesn’t add content to the marketplace of ideas. It turns conversation into an exchange of verbal punches. Four-letter words are emotion-intensifiers, not words with a propositional sense. In the case before the Court, Cohen admitted that his statement had no rational or argumentative purpose at all. He went for the bad word, the Court explained, “as a means of informing the public of the depths of his feelings against the Vietnam War and the draft.” Depths of his feelings? People in this condition are in no mood for discussion.
You and I may have no problem in calling such messages crude and inappropriate and expelling them from the room, but not the justices. They erased the line between principled objection and puerile insult. A four-letter word now rises to the level of meaningful, respectable expression. We can’t rule it out a priori. The law needs firm axioms and clear distinctions, but when it comes to vulgarity, profanity, propriety, and decency, “no readily ascertainable general principle exists.” Yes, Harlan concedes, this “particular four-letter word being litigated here is perhaps more distasteful than most others of its genre,” but distastefulness doesn’t have enough sharp boundaries to serve the law. And besides, he adds with a relativistic shrug of the shoulders, “it is nevertheless often true that one man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric.”
The saddest part of this prevaricating, trimming episode in the Supreme Court, which bears so closely on contemporary life, is that if those justices were alive today and witnessed the triumph of vulgarity everywhere in American mass culture, they would, I suspect, shake their heads in tired resignation and persevere in their decision.
Seven years later, another vulgarity case came before the court, FCC v. Pacifica Foundation. There, the justices ruled against a radio station that had broadcast Carlin’s famous “Filthy Words” monologue at two o’clock in the afternoon. The Court backed the FCC’s warning to the station, but it didn’t base its decision on the content of the broadcast. What mattered was the fact that it entered people’s homes and children might hear it.
To which dissenting Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall replied, “Dispassionate analysis, removed from individual notions as to what is proper and what is not, starkly reveal that these justifications . . . simply do not support even the professedly moderate degree of governmental homogenization of radio communications.”
That’s quite a leap. To keep off the air in after-school hours the word Cohen used, along with a compound word that incorporates it, leaves us with a “homogenized” medium? Without the vile and vulgar, American entertainment is bland?
That sounds to me like “radical chic.” The norms of bourgeois life are boring and conventional, the words and deeds of misfits and bohemians thrilling and edgy. We need the violations of Carlin and his ilk to make life interesting and evolving. Without Allen Ginsberg, we would be Stepford wives.
Our cultural leaders have succeeded in casting older codes of speech and conduct as just that—old-fashioned. Religious and social conservatives shouldn’t deny it. “You’re darn right!” let us answer. Our culture hasn’t evolved. It has devolved. To progress, we need to regain the moral courage to say, “I don’t want to go forward any more. I want to go back to when one man’s vulgarity was . . . vulgarity.”