MIDDLEBOROUGH, Mass - Denizens of one Massachusetts hamlet can expect their public outings to be a bit more sedate in the future thanks to a town ordinance that outlaws public cussing. Last Monday night town residents approved the ordinance introduced by Mimi DuPhily, 63, a member of Middleborough's beautification committee.
DuPhily reportedly set her mind on cleaning up public discourse after suffering through a bout of loud swearing by a group of teenagers out in public acting like, well, teenagers. Said DuPhily, "We're not talking about just conversation but screaming it across the street . . . [d]ropping F-bombs and so on."
Although the ordinance does not include a list of banned expletives, it does allow police discretion in deciding whether to cite offenders. Violation of the ordinance is punishable by a $20 fine, presumably not per word.
In the interest of full disclosure, I consider cussing an art form. The well dropped f**k is, to me and other connoisseurs, like the white space in a watercolor, the element that shapes the gaudier bits of one's spoken tableau giving it depth and realism. Not everyone agrees with me. My mother told me recently, "You'll never be taken seriously as a writer using that kind of language," which is but one example of how my therapist can afford his Mercedes.
That's my own angst. I shan't dwell on it. I shall dwell on the fact that the law in question has mostly to do with teenagers and on that score, I'm torn.
I hate teenagers. A lot. I hate teenagers a bit more than I hate Piers Morgan and everyone who knows me knows how much I hate foreigners telling me about my own country. I've got two girls who used to be teenagers and one who still is. I have teenaged nieces, nephews and all other manner of kin and I do not now nor did I ever like a single one of them. When I was a teenager I hated myself and I deserved it. I don't much like preteens and I can just barely tolerate posts. Really, from about the age of nine until about 30, I find humans odious.
So if there's a town somewhere that empowers cops to punish teenagers for anything, part of me is all for it. That same part of me would support an ordinance forcing kids to curl the brims of their baseball caps. I'd also partially support laws that require teenagers to tie their shoes, chew with their mouths closed, remain silent in retail establishments and sport only one hair color at a time.
But then there's another part of me, the larger one, that wonders what adulthood has come to if we need laws to stop kids from acting like a**holes (sorry, Mother). As far as I'm aware, back when I was a thoroughly hateworthy teenager there were no laws on the books that prevented me from shouting curse words across the street within earshot of aging townspeople. There needn't have been. When I was a teenager we had adults and it was my fear of them that served my small town better than any law could have. Let's face it; the best way to get a teenaged boy to do something is to tell him it's illegal. What saves this world from the tyranny of teenaged boys is their fear of grown men. A hundred laws aren't nearly as effective in coercing civil behavior from a teenager as one grown man with a belt.
That's a fact and don't bother telling me it's not right to hit kids. I can hear the wails now; "You wouldn't hit a grown-up would you?" I would if he was hanging around the mall talking like R-Kelly in front of retirees. I sure wouldn't try to reason with him. "Look, DJ Jazzy Trevor. It's not that we don't respect your individuality, it's just that some people at the Sharper Image don't be keeping it quite so real, yo."
But supposing you would not personally enjoy hitting a teenager, what's to stop you from reporting that teenager to his or her parents parents in the reasonable expectation that they would do so? My dad was on the road 200-plus days a year when I was young and his first order of business upon every return home was to dole out whatever correction had been left on-hold during his absence. Had he gotten word from some busy-body socialite that my friends and I were out cussing like a pack of sailors in polite society - shudder. I'm 46 and the thought still frightens me.
Why can we no longer take matters into our collective hands when it comes to adolescent delinquency? It's a tragedy and not just for us, but for the kids themselves.
You've probably seen video of the speaker at Wellesley High School's recent commencement ceremony who told a class of graduating seniors, "Do not get the idea you're anything special, because you're not." English teacher David McCullough, Jr., told a throng of teenagers, "Even if you're one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you."
That video went viral because it resonates with all of us who've spent so much of our time as parents, aunts, uncles and ordinary concerned adults trying to instill in a generation of young people the idea that each of them is unique, each entitled to privileges, each worthy of fawning admiration, in short, that each is special. No they're not and at some level we were wrong to tell them so.
Regardless of my earlier sarcasm, I find young people fascinating. I also consider them the very best hope we have to someday set straight a world we've set badly awry through our own misguided efforts. But their chances of getting things right are not improved by our continuing to get things wrong. Resorting to the passage of petty laws to stop kids from doing what the man from the hardware store could stop with a believed threat, that's getting things wrong. It amounts to telling kids, "We realize we're powerless to govern you. So we'll do something typically asinine."
And why should they have any respect for us when we have such little respect for ourselves?