Wednesday, June 13, 2018
A friend lamented the other day about the vulgarities that are so commonplace in America, and not all of them out of Washington. She complained that the big one, the mother of all curse words, can now be seen on bumper stickers. Can you imagine what Mama would have thought? We can't. It's just not something that would have happened in polite society, and this society gets less so by the news cycle.
And now, apparently, a movie big shot and one of the most famous people in the world, Robert De Niro, dropped the big bomb on live TV the other night--in reference to the current president of the United States, of course. We say apparently because he said it on an awards show, and who watches them any more? But the vulgarity did make the papers.
Maybe Mr. De Niro felt better after he shocked those who watched. It's said that CBS was quick on the bleep trigger, but it's also said that a lot of viewers got the message without filter. Surely our favorite movie mobster was pleased when he saw the audience of actors stand up to applaud him. To be recognized for one's work can be satisfying.
It's not unheard of to feel better after a cussing. When you're dishing it. That's usually the way with vulgar language or any other other addictive habit. It may have been Mark Twain who said let us swear now, for in heaven it won't be allowed. The problem is, or one of the problems is, after the first indulgence the effect wears off with every successive dose, and so it has to be increased. Till the vulgarities replace the language entirely, and any meaning is completely drained away.
A kind of Gresham's Law operates in communication, too, as bad words drive out good. After a time, the whole currency of language is devalued, as once-shocking words become part of the ever louder static in the background. Until it becomes impossible for any thought to seep through. Ask anybody who's had to work with an old-style first sergeant, foul-mouthed coach, or crusty old editor.
We often had to wonder, when our drill sergeant was teaching through negative reinforcement, if he ever let one slip at the Thanksgiving table. Assuming he had family and was birthed and raised in the familiar manner. It is entirely possible, come to think, that he was assembled at NCO school. But surely he went to the movies in his spare time, or at least out to eat. If a waiter spilled a drink, would he turn the air blue over Lawton, Okla.?
As in any Quentin Tarantino film, the ever increasing verbal violence, like the visual kind, soon dulls the senses instead of shocking them. Is anybody really shocked at Robert De Niro's remarks? Or, better yet, is anybody really impressed? The man didn't even seem to try much. Then again, he is an actor, not a writer.
A few verbally gifted types can still make a low art of vulgarity, but they're the exception. A talented cusser is as rare among regular folk as a Patton among generals. With most practitioners, the obscene becomes routine, like a linguistic tic, and the only variety involved is just a matter of turning up the volume, until any meaning is lost in a Howard Deanish hissy fit.
And even if the subject of Mr. De Niro's ire is vulgar himself, does that mean the rest of us have to be, too? Mama always said if so-and-so jumps off a bridge, would you?
Quite aside from the self-inflicted wound to our dignity that routine obscenity delivers, it also destroys the power of the obscenity itself. Which is a pity. Used with less and less excuse, cuss words lose their expressiveness. They become just sounds, and the vocabulary is soon impoverished to the point where, to quote one student of the language, we soon won't know what to say when we hit our thumb with a hammer.
That's how the therapeutic effect of a good cussin' is lost--at a time when American society can use all the real therapy it can get.
There's a time and place for everything, as the Book instructs. Which reminds us of the story of an Army Ranger named August Stern. He was featured in a book titled Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides. During a rescue mission of a POW camp, August Stern grabbed up a chaplain named Hugh Kennedy, and began to take his charge to freedom. And soon after leaving the compound, the sergeant stumbled into an irrigation ditch full of raw sewage. The rescuer began to curse a blue streak, until he realized who he had on his back. Back then, even an Army grunt would be embarrassed for speaking that way in front of a man of the cloth.
"Son, you're forgiven," the chaplain told him. "There's a time and place for everything, and this is the time and place."
The state of the popular culture, as gauged by the number of bleeps or near-bleeps on television any given night, is already so degraded that one more bad example probably won't hurt much. As our ability to express ourselves declines, the use of obscenities rises. It's a kind of declaration of verbal bankruptcy.
There's no 12-step program for this problem, at least none that we know of, but Mr. De Niro might try practicing phrases like "my word!" or "goodness gracious!" in the bathroom mirror till he gets them down pat.
As for the decline in the quality of American discourse, it's been going on for some time now, certainly among politicians and actors. The rest of us, though, could rise above. If we only would.
There's another story that Mark Twain used to tell: During an interview, he was asked if he ever swore.
"Only out of necessity," he answered. "Never for pleasure."
It's a rule more of us should follow.
Editorial on 06/13/2018
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