Vulgarity in public places: what is acceptable? what isn’t?

So I think about this idea frequently, as I go about my business on sidewalks, in stores, at the gym, etc., but it came up in the news the other day. A woman was removed from a flight because her T-shirt had the f-word on it. Naturally, it seems that most people find this action unconscionable and un-American. What is this world coming to when a pilot has the right to remove someone because of a shirt? they write in outrage on their blogs.

Well, I’m going to write in support of that pilot and the airline. Good for them. I have grown very tired of being out and about and seeing all kinds of quite offensive material wherever I look. I run a website about offensive content in books, and there are plenty of places out there that give viewers information about offensive content in movies or TV shows. If any of us viewers complain about that vulgar content, the free-speechers out there respond indignantly, Well, you don’t have to watch it, then! Turn it off! And that’s definitely true. Believe me, I avoid a lot of stuff. (Although I would certainly appreciate if more producers would make content viewable by the majority of us, not a minority.) But what do they want me to do about offensive junk I see or hear just walking around in public places? Not leave my house? Not go to the store? Not walk around downtown? Become a recluse? Hm. I think not.

There are laws on the books in place for a reason, to protect the majority of people in a society who have a certain level of expectation for what they should be free to see or not see (or hear, etc.). There are also cultural norms and expectations. There is also what we might call “etiquette” or simply common decency or courtesy. Each of these comes into play in public areas. Businesses also have certain rights to make rules for their own establishments. American Airlines, for instance, doesn’t own the skies, but it does own the airplane on which this woman with her vulgar shirt flew. I believe that AA had every right to draw a line and say, no, that kind of vulgarity is not acceptable to us and our other paying passengers. I’m not sure what regulations might be for TSA (hard to keep up with them anyway), but the pilot did say that this woman should never have gotten through and onto her first flight as it was. I think that TSA, as a government agency, also has a right to draw some lines on what’s acceptable for people who are passing through its checkpoints. (Don’t get me started on its other issues; let’s focus on this…) In most public places, there are laws in place prohibiting public drunkenness or lewdness or nudity of any sort. Why should it be any different that very harsh language should be regulated in some way in those places?

Many people these days may not be offended by harsh language or images anymore. That’s their choice. But they have to recognize that plenty of the rest of us may still have some sensitivity (and rightly so) to offensive language. There are also levels of vulgarity: some words are just mild “curse” words; some are worse, and some are really bad. I brush off whenever I hear people using the mild stuff, and even the moderate stuff. But it still hurts my ears and wounds my soul to hear the f-word and its ilk used around me.

We as a society seem to have forgotten what it means to be sensitive to the needs and desires of those around us. It’s all about “me,” what “I” want or think is acceptable, and the heck with everyone else. They’re just being overly sensitive or it’s a free country is what people tend to say. Yes, it is a free country, and thank goodness for that. (And it being Memorial Day weekend, might I also add, and thanks be to our soldiers for that.) Liberty is a foundation of our beliefs here. But it seems too often we’ve gone far past that into licentiousness and freedom at all costs, no matter how our choices may affect people around us. Laws and societal rules/expectations are there to try to balance the needs of the one against the many. I think we’re just a nation of “one”s now, who forget there are the “many” surrounding them.

Yes, many “old-fashioned” values have gone by the wayside, and more and more that is vulgar has now become acceptable and appropriate. But the f-word, for example, still stands as an offensive word, and it is not used in everyday conversation in regular settings (most workplaces would frown on that kind of language, for instance). It still causes movies full of its use to be rated as unviewable by children younger than 17. It offends most people. American Airlines, the government, any number of “public” entities have every right to draw a line and say that it does not belong in that public arena. I wish more would take that stand and act on it more frequently. It would make me a lot happier about being out and about, let alone exposing my children to it.

Full life

lifeandlims View All →

I'm a book reviewer, editor, and writer with four daughters and tons of projects always keeping me hopping. I blog at Life and Lims and run the book review site Rated Reads.

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