Perhaps because I am so helplessly enamored of Turner Classic Movies, I am one of those Americans who is more enraged than normal by the, shall we say, “challenges” to our public manners posed by both Roseanne and Samantha Bee.
The magical old films not only had carefully constructed plots, fainting heroines desperate for a passionate kiss and heroes who would save you at the drop of a hint. They were also paragons of an earlier America where innocence ruled the screen, where the Clark Gables and Jimmy Stewarts were the men you dreamed of, and where America itself was so very good that no foreigner could dare question even the slightest of its intentions.
Instead, today we have Roseanne Barr, a TV star of the right, sending a disgusting insult to a respectable African-American political leader. And we have Samantha Bee, another spoiled television darling, this time of the left, throwing the most disgusting word for any woman against the president’s daughter.
And if you deign to look around cable TV almost any night, you’ll find more “f-yous” for public consumption than in a mafia bar on Chicago’s South Side.
All right, you say, you don’t like it (I don’t), but is there anything more to do than “grin and bear it”?
Well, yes. In fact, I think we might pause for a moment and see to what depths we have sunk with such language.
Let’s start with what our wisest forefathers thought about the social purpose of manners and how we express ourselves in a moral universe. Here are words to ponder from 18th-century British statesman, author and philosopher Edmund Burke:
“Manners are of more importance than laws. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.”
In short, bad manners lead to insult, and insult leads to hatred, and hatred leads to violence. Good manners, whether genuine or not, make it possible for humans to live together.
Such philosophers, of course, could hardly have seen where we were headed with social media, which can encourage anonymous hatred for “the different,” or cable television, with fewer of the constraints of broadcast television networks, or the breakdown of society into rabid political party differences.
They could not have foreseen how a beautiful language like English could be so easily decimated by men and women of little moral sense, or how the worst foul language now gains the most celebrity. Remember the liberal Women’s March last year, with Madonna screaming at her enemies, “f-you”?
What I find interesting — and what has garnered virtually no attention — is the way swearing has changed.
In the 1950s, ’60s and well into the ’70s, swearing was largely expressed in ravings to — and against —heaven, against hope, against God and even Christ Himself. “God dammit!” “Jesus Christ!” “Holy hell!” “Go to hell!”
All were imprecations or pleas to greater beings, for help or for the damning of others; and if your words insulted those beings, well, that at least illustrated the seriousness of the situation.
By my reading, public swearing began to change in the late 1960s with the youth rebellion centered around the Vietnam War. Vietnam damaged America’s historical view of its innocence, and what came out was a change in the nature of its cursing.
American cursing became centered on the most vulgar parts of the body and its functions. That’s where Samantha’s “c-word” comes in.
The finest political analyst in Chicago, Don Rose, wrote recently in the Chicago Daily Observer that there is “something strangely sick about a culture that celebrates sex on the one hand but uses the profanities for male and female sex organs as nasty epithets.”
If this doesn’t tell you how low we’ve sunk in the use of our beautiful language, what possibly could?
The widespread criticism of both Roseanne and Samantha are hopeful. The disgust among many Americans for this debasement of our language is encouraging. But do we care enough to turn it all around?
Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years.
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