Wednesday, September 22

The Blight of Profanity

I was embarrassed and frustrated. I was trying my best to enjoy the football game with my wife. The Titans were winning; the weather was perfect; the bratwursts were spicy and hot. What could be better? But a couple of rows in front of us was a rabid fan who had apparently lost all control of his sense of propriety. He didn't like a particular call, or maybe it was a particular play; I don't know. What I do know is that he expressed his displeasure with a barrage of profanity that turned everyone within earshot a distinctive shade of blue--and it wasn't Titans Blue! He went on and on and on. It was awful. His foul mouth very nearly ruined a great afternoon at the stadium.

Alas, that incident was not all that unusual.

Coarse language is no longer sequestered in American life. Talk that was barely whispered a generation ago is broadcast at full volume today. Words that could once only be found scrawled in graffiti under bridges and in abandoned buildings are now woven into the vocabulary of our everyday conversations. The pollution of our verbal ecology has become rampant.

Consumer research analyst, David Chagall has said, “Four-letter words are flying all over the place these days--on the street, at the mall, on television, in movies, in rock and rap music, in five-star hotel lobbies, and not least in the hallways of our schools. In bygone times, dirty words used to come in plain, brown wrappers to opened only private if at all. Today, everywhere the public congregates, you are besieged by them.”

Was it really so long ago that the nation gasped in disbelief when Clark Gable dared to utter the words, “Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn” in Gone With the Wind? Were we really such a different culture when we engaged in a nationwide debate over civility and propriety when the Federal Communications Commission banned George Carlin's Seven Dirty Words routine from the airwaves? Apparently so. Thus, says Chagall, “Now on the eve of the twenty-first century, epithets featuring body parts, waste products, and sex acts are so commonplace they seem to be acceptable speech.”

Writers for television and film often lace the dialog of their characters with foul scatological humor, gross obscenity, and crass disrespect. Parents are mocked cruelly. Authorities are denigrated. Honor and faith are made the butts of cruel, vile, and vicious jokes.

Popular music has descended to even more astonishing depths. Brutally pornographic lyrics are not at all uncommon in rap or rock music today. Graphic language detailing the most horrifying cavortings of barbarism is widely heralded as “honest,” “liberating,” and “refreshing.” Indeed, anyone daring to express qualms about this tidal wave of vulgar, lewd, and tawdry preoccupation with adultery, and fornication--to say nothing of rape, incest, and mutilation--is likely to be mocked as a “prude,” a “goody-goody,” and a “moralistic fundamentalist.”

But as distressing as the proliferation of profanity in popular media might be, the widespread acceptance of filthy talk in the workplaces, in our communities, in our schools, and in our homes is even worse. Swearing hardly causes a ripple of concern any more. Indeed, according to Jonathan Lasker, in his sobering book, Profanity in America, many people see cursing as a “relatively risk-free verbal tool” capable of “getting the attention of others, emphasizing a particular point, expressing a strong opinion or emotion, intimidating others, making a joke, or even relieving stress, frustration, or outrage.”

Thus, he says, “The most striking trends in the popular use of profanity have been among women, teens, and children. It has been a way for them to strike back at authority or injustice or perceived unfairness. Though rarely effectual, it offers them a feeling of power when access to actual power may be more than a little remote.”

Of course, the effect of such a tactic may be less innocent than it may appear at first glance. Indeed, he argues, “Profanity is not only a hallmark of a post-literate society, where ordinary people simply do not have the amplitude of vocabulary capable of expressing a full range of emotions, it is also a hallmark of a frustrated society where ordinary people must give vent to their anger in inarticulate fashion. Historically, mass profanity has always been a harbinger of mass violence.”

Are you surprised? You shouldn't be. Embarrassed and frustrated, maybe. But surely not surprised!

No comments: