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Clearing the air

Culture | Actress Patricia Heaton stands up against language that was once confined to locker rooms and pool halls

Issue: "PAS: The truth hurts," Feb. 8, 2003

When Patricia Heaton walked out of the American Music Awards, she became a role model and a rallying point for everyone who has had enough of the way filthy language has sloshed into the public square.

Ms. Heaton, the Emmy award-winning co-star of Everybody Loves Raymond, was supposed to provide the introduction to a retrospective film clip about the awards. But as she waited to go on, everyone in attendance and the national TV audience were subjected to one lewd and crude innuendo after another. Through it all were the Osbournes, emceeing the show, who were trying to see how often they could get bleeped.

"I'm no prude, but this was such a vulgar and disgusting show," Ms. Heaton told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where her father was a columnist and her brother is a reporter. "What was passing for humor basically ranged from stupid to vulgar-and I just thought, 'I'm not going to be part of this.' So I walked out and said, 'Get my car-I'm leaving.'"

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Her premature exit came at a time when TV was pushing the limits on a number of fronts, seeing how much it could get away with. On the Golden Globes, just days later, U2's Bono included an unbleeped F-word in his acceptance speech, as did a drunken Raiders' fan highlighted in the playoff games. That barrier had already been broken last year, when ESPN aired A Season on the Brink, a made-for-TV movie about basketball coach Bobby Knight, in which that once-forbidden word was used 15 times before the first commercial.

Back in 1972, comedian George Carlin was arrested for saying "The Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV." Today, those words are said with great frequency on premium cable, while the networks are trying gradually to keep up by slipping in new forbidden words every season. According to the Parents Television Council, there was five times as much bad language on TV in 2000 as there was in 1990.

Profanity is not just emanating from the entertainment industry, as I pointed out in a column I wrote for The Wall Street Journal last month. Although bad language has always been with us, it used to be confined to the locker room, the pool hall, and other men-only sites, and men watched their tongues when women or children were present. Now, people swear with no social inhibitions-for example, around families at ball games-and women and children are often the worst offenders.

The same week these other curse-fests were in the news, The Washington Post, no bastion of cultural conservatism, published an op-ed piece complaining about having to put up with children "from good schools" cursing a blue streak on the Metro.

Language has become so bad in the schools that many teachers are told not to even try to deal with it. We have to worry about guns and fights, they are told. Combating bad language is low on our list. Some administrators even suggest that teachers look in the mirror and repeat obscene words over and over to themselves, so they will desensitize themselves so that this kind of language will no longer bother them so much.

Here is a suggestion: Just as New York City police reduced the number of major crimes by cracking down on the lesser violations-thereby creating an atmosphere of order and safety-beleaguered schools should try the same tactic. Crack down on bad language, thereby engendering an atmosphere of decorum and respect, and it is very likely that the school will have fewer fights and fewer guns.

Although the assumption seems to be that bad language is no longer a big deal, a large part of the population is bothered by it, but is apparently too polite-a consideration unknown to the swearers-to say anything about it.

Ms. Heaton has received an outpouring of positive feedback for her stance. "When I was waiting for my car, one of the security people came up to me and said, 'I just want you to know how much I admire what you're doing.' So I wasn't the only one who felt this way. The camera coordinator for the awards was our camera coordinator from Raymond. And when I walked on the set the next day, he started applauding." Pundits from across the political spectrum are hailing what she did.

The biggest winner at those American Music Awards was Eminem, the profane white rapper who took four prizes, including top male performer and best album. Eminem, now a doting father, has become like other parents in not wanting to expose his child to the kind of records he makes. He has made special, profanity-free versions of his recordings for his 7-year-old daughter Hailie. One wants to ask him, "If you want to shelter your own daughter from this kind of language, why are you putting it out for other people's kids?"

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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