In a previous post, I explained how the Supreme Court of the United States vacated the provision in the Lanham Act — which governs American trademark law — prohibiting trademarks that “disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” Such trademarks, the Court determined, express viewpoints, and the First Amendment protects speech from viewpoint discrimination. In a concurring opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy acknowledged that Matal v. Tam, the case in question, did “not present the question of how other provisions of the Lanham Act should be analyzed under the First Amendment,” but if the Court sticks to its rationale in that case, it will have to extend First Amendment protection to all kinds of strong language, not just slurs but profanity and obscenity, too. I could call my pro-profanity nonprofit advocacy group Express Your Damned Self® and register the name as a trademark because Fuck the Lanham Act® — that’s our slogan— and there’s not a damned thing you or the Patent and Trademark Office could do about it. Continue reading
“Strong language” covers a lot of speech, from profanity to racial and ethnic slurs. The slurs got a big boost on 17 June 2017, in a United States Supreme Court decision. Until then, the Lanham Act of 1946 — which governs American trademark law — prohibited use of derogatory terms like slurs in federally approved trademarks. To quote the Act, trademarks may not “disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” The Court unanimously decided instead that trademark owners can disparage with abandon and bring others into contempt or disrepute deliberately or with disregard.
In the words of Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, Simon Tam — founder of The Slants, the first all Asian-American dance-rock band — applied “for federal trademark registration of the band’s name […]. ‘Slants’ is a derogatory term for persons of Asian descent, and members of the band are Asian-Americans. But the band members believe that by taking that slur as the name of their group, they will help to ‘reclaim’ the term and drain its denigrating force.” The United States Patent and Trademark Office refused the application because slant refers to the disparaging stereotype that people of Asian heritage are “slant-eyed.” The band hoped to “‘take ownership’ of stereotypes about people of Asian ethnicity.” The USPTO obstructed that re-appropriation. Continue reading
At this writing, my son, Ollie, is seven-and-a-half years wise, so of course he’s begun to swear, albeit on mostly innocuous terms. Trust me, he hasn’t learned to swear from his mom or dad. We’re careful to set a good example around the kids. And we’re not big swearers ourselves. True, every time Jenny heard George W. Bush’s talk about the Iraq War on the radio she muttered, “Pig-fucker,” but that was before we had children, and given recent political events in America, she’s unexpectedly nostalgic, historically and linguistically revisionist.
Ollie has picked up profanity from friends, of course. He has no phone yet and doesn’t text, so OMG isn’t in his spoken lexicon. He can’t depend on initialism for euphemism. He started to interject Oh, my god in the usual places — frustration with his parents’ decisions, moments of surprise or wonder, frustration with intractable Legos or intermittent Netflix, well, mostly frustration, I guess. We sympathize and we know, too, that frustration often requires verbal expression and relief. Nevertheless, we discourage Oh, my god and recommend Oh, my gosh, instead.
Led by the likes of A. S. Colborne and Roland Sawyer, millions of Americans have joined anti-profanity movements and sworn to eradicate swearing. Despite their fervor and persistence, nothing much has changed over the last century or so. Well, except that there’s more swearing. Perhaps only divine intervention can rid the world of bad language. That’s more or less what the newish, unusual NBC sitcom The Good Place proposes.
The Good Place premiered on NBC on 19 September 2016 and ran for thirteen episodes. It’s been renewed for a second thirteen-episode season to begin 28 September 2017. Its creator and show-runner, Michael Schur, has a sense of humor devilish or divine, depending on how you look at it. Here’s the premise: just a few remarkably good and productive people make it to the Good Place and everyone else — statistically, everybody — goes to the Bad Place.
Long an admirer of Joseph Mitchell, I take his portrait of A. S. Colborne and his Anti-Profanity League as iconic, though, as the trail of news Colborne left behind him proves, Mitchell’s view was partial and misleading. Colborne was by no means the only American anti-profanity campaigner, and the fact that he wasn’t alone, that anti-profanity activism persists in America today, supports profanity’s expressive power — a vestige of taboo keeps strong language strong. As it turns out, a little anti-profanity goes a long way.
Prompted by my first post about Colborne, Patrick Collins searched Chronicling America and commented on several other anti-profanity movements. Some were charmingly local, others of regional, if not national, scope. Among the former, in Leesburg, Ohio — as reported in The Highland Weekly News (13 December 1882) — “An anti-swearing league ha[d] been formed among the boys of the village.” A few years later — as reported in the The Omaha Daily Bee (21 June 1886) — the Commercial Travelers’ Protective Association placed anti-profanity placards in hotels and restaurants, for the public good, of course, but also to curb the sweary impulses of those very commercial travelers — the motive was less moral than a matter of public relations.