On public cursing and other public sins

Posted: Jan 27, 2004 12:00 AM

Note: Some language in this column may be offensive to some readers.

You want to know what many conservatives and liberals agree on? That there is little or no moral difference between public and private behavior.

This belief of mine has been reinforced by a large number of e-mails reacting to my column on how Democrats are far more at home with using curse words in public than are conservatives.

Religious conservatives who disagreed wrote that God knows and judges all our actions, private and public, while other conservatives noted that a man's character is best demonstrated by his behavior "when no one is looking."

Liberal objectors generally offered two other arguments: right-wing hypocrisy and the triviality of the issue.

The hypocrisy argument: Didn't George W. Bush call a New York Times correspondent an "a--hole"? And didn't he once say "f--- Saddam" to some officials in his White House office? Therefore, aren't I a hypocrite when I point out that Sen. John Kerry used the f-word in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine; that a Howard Dean fundraiser at which he was present was filled with obscenity-laced humor; and that a formal dinner of the Democratic support group moveon.org was also filled with obscenities?

The other liberal argument is that cursing is no big deal. To make their point, a number of liberal correspondents wittily filled their e-mails to me with the f-word. Only a "f---ing moron conservative" (to some of my correspondents a redundant phrase) would be more concerned with cursing than with global warming.

In short, many conservatives think public cursing and private cursing are equally wrong, and many liberals believe that public and private cursing are equally OK.

They are both wrong.

Let me use a personal illustration. I do a daily national radio show. If I used an expletive on the air, would any conservative think it was no worse an infraction, no more serious a sin, than if I used that word alone with a friend?

I consider the answer obvious, but apparently it is not, so further explanation is necessary.
Some actions are wrong whether done in private or public. Murder is obviously wrong whether committed in public or in private. But some actions are wrong only when committed in public. Making love to your spouse in private is wonderful, but on a public bus, the identical act is immoral.

Now why? Why does the presence of others in and of itself render some acts wrong? Because everything we do in public affects society. That is not true of everything we do in private. In fact, the very act of distinguishing between public and private behavior shows that we do care about society. My desisting from language on the radio that I might use in the presence of a friend is my way of honoring the public.

As is, for example, the way we dress in public. That we now dress for others the same as we dress at home is not a social gain. People wearing shorts and T-shirts to church does not honor a house of worship, while wearing such clothes at home is a non-issue.

Here is another example: It is always illegal to drive through a red light. But it is not always equally wrong (morally). When a driver goes through a red light with anyone (literally any one) seeing it, that driver has publicly announced that the rules of society do not apply to him. That can be a far more dangerous thing for society than going through a red light at 3 a.m. on a deserted road when no cars and no pedestrians can see it.

If using an expletive is always sinful, we must all agree that the gravity of this sin fully depends on when, why and where it is used. That is why I am not troubled to learn that President Bush once used the f-word privately when speaking about the monster known as Saddam Hussein.
Frankly, I am somewhat relieved to know he is real, not a saint (saints shouldn't be presidents -- I suspect that Jimmy Carter, a particularly poor president, never used such language), and to know that he really hated a man worthy of hate. However, had the president deliberately used the word in an interview and not immediately apologized, I would question his commitment to the rules of decency that make our civilization better. That is why what Sen. Kerry did frightens me.

As for the liberals who think that using the f-word in public is no big deal, it is good to have them say so. Anything that clarifies the massive values-differences between the Left and the Right is helpful. We who are not on the Left think public cursing is a big deal, because we believe that people can pollute their soul, their character, and, yes, their society, just as they can pollute their rivers and their air and their lungs.