"No Cussing Week" just ended in South Pasadena. No, I'm not making this up. Mayor Michael Caccioitti of the staid California foothill community proclaimed the first week of March, now and hereafter, as a time when citizens will hopefully refrain from verbalizing the Lord's name in vain or in 4 letters. His Honor said, "It provides us a reminder to be more civil, to elevate the level of discourse." The proclamation was inspired by a local 14-year-old, McKay Hatch, who said he got tired of hearing four-letter words at school. With his family's support, McKay started a No Cussing Club, which now claims to be spreading like wildfire, with 10,000 members nationwide.
The city's announcement produced a spate of witty news stories. Even the AP couldn't resist commenting, "What the $%?" But underneath all the ha-ha, I see a grim trend -- especially when I learned that schoolboy Hatch and his family are related to Senator Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, one of the biggest churchifiers on Congress.
The fact is, ultraconservative religion is dead serious about the "thou shalt not" on speech in the Ten Commandments. They have already made significant progress in their march against "blasphemous and indecent" talk in America. To them, "blasphemy" includes not only casual cussing, the kind you do during road rage, but also editorial writing that is harshly critical of Christianity. And they're trying to do it by confusing the issue....telling us that they only want "civil discourse" when they're actually looking to put their religious beliefs in charge of our mouths. Catholic, Protestant and Mormon conservatives have always been fiercely opposed to "blasphemy." They define this as saying the Lord's name casually or disrespectfully. Church ouchiness also includes what the law calls "indecent" speech about sex and certain other bodily functions.
When I grew up in the 40s and 50s, the whole country was still very puritanical about casual speech and the subjects you could discuss in print. Naturally homosexuality was never mentioned. People were just getting comfortable with the word "pregnant." Even at school, a kid didn't dare utter certain words. You only heard a word like that on the school bus, or at home if your dad happened to hit his thumb with a hammer. My dad was careful to keep frank cowboy talk relegated to the corrals and away from the house, especially if we kids were listening. And my dad wasn't even big on church. It was just the way most people felt about speech back in the day.
One time my mother washed my mouth out with soap for coming home and saying a word I'd heard on the bus. The word was "Jeez."
During the Sixties, American society did launch 40 years of free-wheeling verbalism, and we've had a lot of fun with it. But now the United States is actually swinging the pendulum back to punitive puritanism in public speech. Anybody who watches TV has surely noticed the creeping of bleeping into most broadcast content -- including classic and popular films, where entire long-familiar scenes are now been cut because they involve "god damns" or frank sexual talk. Inevitably the bleepers will have Rhett Butler saying, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a doggone."
The religious right have also gotten many states to outlaw any discussion of sex and GLBT issues at schools, on grounds that this is "indecent" talk as well.
Don't get me wrong -- I'm not defending the endless streams of $%s that many people spew out of their mouths because they substitute it for real thought and communication. It's the religious trend that scares me. The churchifiers are trying to take over "civility" the way they took over marriage. They already got away with insisting that all marriage is sacred and therefore marriage law should be under their control, when in reality marriage law in the West has been a civil matter for many centuries and the churches should have nothing to say about it. The religious right is very good at this kind of bait-and-switch on issues, and it works every time with Americans who don't see the maneuver.
Here, as always, the lessons of history are hair-raising. Whenever conservative religion took charge of a nation's criminal code, it made blasphemy a serious crime. In the West, blasphemy against Christianity was prohibited, but it was okay to dump on other religions. When I was living and working as a journalist in Spain in the 1960s, the Catholic fascist government was shockingly strict in their enforcement of speech laws on the street and at public events. Time and again, at soccer games and bullfights, where people got carried away by their passions (especially after a few beers) and yelled a Spanish four-letter word or two, I saw them being arrested and dragged off by los grises (the state police). And if you said or wrote anything remotely disrespectful against the Catholic Church or Catholic clergy in public, you went to prison for a good long while.
In colonial America, blasphemy was a capital crime in Massachusetts and Virginia. In 1659-60, four Quakers were hanged for simply speaking out against the ruling religion -- even this was considered blasphemy.
Today it may surprise many Americans to know that blasphemy laws are still on the books in most states. In Massachusetts, for instance, blasphemy clearly covers indecent speech, because it's grouped with sex offenses against children in a category called "Crimes Against Chastity, Morality, Decency and Good Order." Punishment is a year in jail and a $300 fine.
Since around 1970, blasphemy laws haven't been enforced because of U.S. Supreme Court positions on speech -- these laws got to be viewed as unconstitutional and unenforceable. As recently as 2007, a federal appeals court struck down the FCC's policy of heavy fines for "indecent" speech on TV and radio.
But the winds of religious change are blowing the windsock in a very different direction, and I expect to see the Court do a 180-degree turn on "blasphemous and indecent speech" any time now. "No Cussing Week" is likely the start of actual enforcement at local levels across the country. And it won't be funny.