Tonight, when Democrats kick off their third debate in Houston, Texas, it will still be family hour on network television. With that in mind, ABC wrote the candidates to remind them to refrain from using barnyard epithets and other obscenities lest the kiddies and “sensitive viewers” get offended.
“We wanted to take this opportunity to remind you that, as the debate will air on the ABC broadcast network, we are governed by Federal Communications Commission indecency rules,” Rick Klein, the network’s political director, wrote in a memo forwarded to campaigns by the Democratic Party.
“Candidates should therefore avoid cursing or expletives in accordance with federal law,” Mr. Klein added, presumably sighing deeply.
It isn’t just a question of good taste and politeness. Being a broadcast network, ABC is governed by much stricter rules than cable channels.
There will be no delay on Thursday’s broadcast, leaving ABC censors helpless to bleep any blurted profanities. And the fact that the debate will be carried on regular broadcast airwaves — rather than the more libertine environment of cable — means the network could face penalties from federal regulators if obscenities are transmitted into Americans’ living rooms.
Concerns about uncouth language may seem quaint in an era when President Trump regularly indulges in all kinds of locker-room talk, peppering his social media and rally speeches with oaths once considered unspeakable (publicly, anyway) for a commander in chief.
But Democratic candidates, several of whom have denounced Mr. Trump’s degradation of political discourse, are increasingly dipping into dirty words themselves.
Beto O’Rourke recently tweeted out an F-bomb to describe the El Paso shooting. He even marketed a t-shirt with the obscenity spelled out.
Obscenities, Mr. O’Rourke argues, are an appropriate response to the nation’s recent spate of gun massacres, including a mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart in the district he represented. Asked in New Hampshire over the weekend if he planned to swear on the debate stage, the candidate replied: “Maybe.”
Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey has casually used an obscene word for feces on his Twitter account, and Julián Castro, the former housing secretary, has indulged in a similar obscenity in live interviews. Coarse words like “pissed” or “hell” have also shown up in candidates’ statements.
The first time I used the F-word in front of my father, he observed, “There are 500,000 words in the English language and that’s the best you can come up with?”
Times have changed, but good manners and politeness never go out of style. The use of the F-word and other expletives is a sign of a deficient intellect. In my own mind, it disqualifies anyone who uses them from holding any public office — from dog catcher to president.
It has nothing to do with religion. It has everything to do with good taste. The words themselves are harmless, but they represent a coarsening of public discourse which only makes our political divide worse.
Of course, there are many on both sides who don’t give a fig about politeness to your political opponents or having any kind of discourse at all. It is unfortunate that they dominate our politics at a time when we really need to understand each other better.
There are people on both sides with good hearts and good intentions who are being stifled and silenced by the crazies. If we could follow ABC’s advice and “keep it clean,” it would be a small step toward a dialogue.