Before August 10, 2010 Steven Slater was an unknown flight attendant working for JetBlue Airlines. But all that changed when the frustrated employee let loose a string of profanities once reserved for the saltiest of sailors. The vulgarity-laden tirade supposedly resulted from an exchange with an uncooperative passenger. Following his crude remarks, which were broadcast over the airplanes intercom system, Slater released the emergency chute, grabbed a beer and exited the plane via the slide. Though the details that led to the dispute were sketchy at first, Slater’s choice of words was not.
Slater’s actions were applauded by many on a Facebook page set up specifically to host comments about the career-ending move. Others however are not as impressed. Yet the outburst points at the increasingly common use of cussing in society and its acceptance as a public form of communication.
Take for example the passenger on public transit who is unable to complete a single sentence without inserting several crass terms, the sports hero who employs swear words during an after game interview, and American Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Dick Cheney whose use of expletives in the public realm also caused a stir.
"People need special words to convey emotion, which is, by nature, ineffable," writes Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. "We hear more and more examples of cursing in public—sometimes to recreate private conversation, as in fiction or on TV, and sometimes, as with Biden, because of technology."
The fact that the Oxford English Dictionary 2nd Edition contains entries for 171,476 currently used words, 47,156 obsolete words, and 9,500 derivatives - just over a quarter of a million terms—seems irrelevant for people that feel the need to rely on profanities to express their emotions.
The animated children’s show SpongeBob SquarePants recently addressed the rampant use of profanities in the episode entitled "Sailor Mouth." When SpongeBob and his friend Patrick are exposed to a "bad word" on a garbage dumpster, they begin to repeat the expletive for patrons of the Krusty Krab. (Fortunately audiences are never audibly exposed to the vulgarity, which is bleeped out.) But their boss Mr. Krabs isn’t impressed when his customers flee from his establishment after hearing the offensive term. By the end of the show, however, even Mr. Krabs has had to put his own mouth in check.
While the program appears to emphasize the importance of avoiding cuss words, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is facing a new challenge when it comes to monitoring offensive language on public airwaves. As of July 2010, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York voted unanimously that the FCC’s policy on indecent language is "unconstitutionally vague" and a violation of the First Amendment’s freedom of speech clause. The ruling takes away the FCC’s ability to fine broadcasters if someone lets loose on air with an expletive that relates to "sex, sexual organs, or excretion."
Some appear to agree with the ruling. "The state makes a poor moral arbiter. Government power is far more likely to be deployed against politically unpopular speakers than against those whose speech is offensive in some objective sense," writes Ilya Somin, associate professor at George Mason University School of Law. Others, including Christopher Chulack, executive producer of Southland, argue that the dirty words are necessary to create realism in grittier dramas.
But will swearing increase now that broadcasters and program executives appear to have earned their right to air them without threat of reprisal? Will viewers have to brace themselves for a profanity free-for-all during the dinner hour—or any other hour for that matter—on the public airwaves? Who does decide what is acceptable for general consumption and family viewing?
The full impact of the ruling is yet to be felt. But with profanities already repeatedly aired on cable networks, it likely won’t be long until even more of them are pumped into homes, making the mute button more important than ever.