The other day I came across a quote in a news article that caught my eye. The story involved a case where someone had been issued a citation for "profanity". One of the lawyers involved in the case was quoted as saying,“I have no idea what is indecent or is profane, and nobody else does for that matter.” I thought that was a very interesting statement to make.
The first part of the statement is particularly interesting because it would seem that the lawyer is admitting his ignorance as to what it means to be indecent or to use profanity, but I do not think that that is how he meant it. I think it is more an indictment of the state of our society rather than an expression of personal ignorance. He is in a sense saying that there are no words that could be considered to be profanity or indecent. The fact that we live in an "anything goes" society with no checks, either personal or legal, on behavior is an indication of a larger problem in society. Because there is neither a personal morality nor a public ethics that dictate a limit on what is considered civil indicates that as a society we are wholly incapable of restraining criminal or anti-social (meaning against, or destructive of, society as opposed to individualistic) behavior.
But the second half of his statement I also found odd because while he is at first insisting on his own (or society's in general) ignorance of what constitutes profanity, he then extends that ignorance to everyone else. He is in essence saying that because he his ignorant of something, everyone else is too. This is a classic case of a deductive fallacy, where the subject (the lawyer in this case) assumes knowledge of what everyone else knows based on what he knows. This is to say that everyone else is ignorant of what is indecent just because he is. This seems rather presumptuous. To be honest I do not think that was what he meant by his statement, but my argument still holds because he is still making the assumption that because he cannot pin down the definition everyone else is wholly incapable of defining it either. He is essentially saying that because he holds a particular world view everyone else necessarily holds that same world view. This seems rather presumptuous.
So leaving behind the deductive fallacy, let us look at the ideas that prompted him to make this statement in the first place. In referring to profanity and indecency he is recognizing that there is a measure of vagueness in what constitutes profanity. I will admit that there is some vagueness in whether or not some words, or a single word in particular, can be considered profanity. I have known some people that would use certain words without thinking twice about it, while other people would blush when the same word was used in their presence and would never even think of using the word themselves. Thus for the two different people the same word can at the same time be considered profanity and a natural part of the conversation. I am not referring to words that are used differently in different countries, I am talking about the same words used in the same country. But now that I mention that I can also point out that there is a word that when it is used in Mexico it is a terrible swear word, but the same word in Argentina is used commonly by most people, including nice, little, old grandmothers who would never use foul language. Coincidentally there is also a word in Argentina that is never used in polite society, yet the same word is a common verb in other countries and is regularly taught to first year Spanish students in the US.
So yes there is some vagueness as to what can be considered profanity, yet that does not create the fallacy. The fallacy comes from the assumption that just because something is vaguely defined, it automatically has no definition. For example, the edge of the earth's atmosphere is not sharply defined yet there is no doubt that there is a difference between outer space and the atmosphere, because if there were not discernible difference then we would not use the terms in the first place. The mere fact that the terms exist is an indication that there is a distinction and that at least someone understands it. How we define the transition is a separate matter, but it is still a fallacy to deny the distinction just because there is some ambiguity in how to define the transition. We can also debate the usefulness of using the distinction, and this is also an important question in some situations, yet in the case of profanity and indecency there is still general acknowledgment in our society that profanity exists (and in some cases they are trying to come up with new definitions, laws and punishments for it). So to deny at least the existence of a definition is disingenuous.
Almost all the arguments I have encountered about why profanity should be acceptable and not punished/looked down upon either use the vagueness argument, or they use an argument that uses a fallacy known as the suppressed correlative. Essentially individual words which at one point were considered profanity are successively defined as not being "bad", or come into such common usage so that no one (or very few) considers them to be profane. After changing the definition to the point that all words that were profane are no longer, the definition becomes pointless (i.e. the empty set) and it is logical to do away with the definition. Strictly speaking this is a kind of a reversed suppressed correlative, but it applies. Still, as long as the word remains in common usage then it still has a definition that can be applied, even in a court of law.
There are some considerations that we have to take in to account. We do not want an overly broad definition because that would mean we are guilty of the reverse, yet at the same time because the distinction exists and it is up to our judgement to figure out where the line is drawn. To deny the existence, like the lawyer did, of the distinction between what is profane and what is not, is for me an acceptance that we cannot, or do not desire, civility in out society. And for me that is a terrible fallacy.