You know someone is old enough to remember, let’s say, the Kennedy assassination when he shudders as some lout on TV giggles out a laugh-line that substitutes ass for the body part known in quainter times as the derrière or the behind. Without a beg-your-pardon, ma’am.
It’s a wonderful new age, to be sure—one marked by seemingly total freedom and latitude for expression. All those bluenosed inhibitions we used to feel about words we weren’t supposed to utter in polite company—gone! As, I guess, may be the case also with polite company. Why be polite if no one understands you’re being polite when you scrub and perfume your manner of expression? Says a New York Times headline from late spring: “Bleep or No Bleep, Bolder Words Blow In.” The substance of the story is that advertisers feel super-motivated to engage us customers. To compliment us all, whatever our chronologies, as if we all sported tattoos and 28-inch waistlines.
“Ads for Ford trucks, Keystone light beer and Summer’s Eve feminine hygiene products,” the Times’ story says, “use colloquial expression for manliness that are focused on the testicles. A nickname for that body part, along with another essential element of a man, is repeated in video clips for a body groomer sold under the Wilkinson Sword Quattro Titanium brand name.”
The Kennedy-assassination-remembering crowd is capable of recalling as well the half-startled, half-pleased murmur that even in 1961 escaped the packed houses watching the return of Gone With the Wind when Mr. Clark Gable informed Miss Vivien Leigh that, as to caring what she did henceforth, he frankly didn’t give a damn. We’d be lucky if in a remake he didn’t add, “bitch.”
Which—forgive me, ma’am—is as far as I’m going today with Modern Frankness, given my own premodern predispositions. On the other hand, something has to be said about what gets said while generally escaping rebuke or expostulation, if we’re to judge by television and the internet.
We are all invited to think of the ongoing crude-ification of America as a concomitant of the now mostly accomplished liberation of America from, you know, worn–out norms, priggish restraints, dead-white-male assumptions, and so on.
A free-swinging country like America was destined never to be any ivory copy of Tuileries jeunesse dorée, c. 1780. Not that that’s the point. Americans have never before given up on the courtesy thing, intuiting that the daily courtesies human beings offer one another—including restraint in expressions likely to offend—lubricate life’s comings and goings. Consideration for others is the meaning of manners, including those others who don’t get their jollies rolling in the vernacular mud as one entreats another, “Hey, look what’s on TV tonight—Dance Your Ass Off!”
So much for previous understandings of ought and oughtn’t. We’re natural today. We’re loose. We’re free. Pretty good copies, at times, of the “trousered apes” whose emergence among us C.S. Lewis memorably foresaw.
Oh, mutter, mutter, mutter. We all know what it sounds like when decrepit old-timers get to mourning the loss of Lucky Strikes and Fibber McGee’s closet. It sounds damned—excuse me one last time, ma’am—depressing.
Mourning the loss of restraint in expression isn’t in that league. It’s bigger. To aim low, as opposed to high, is generally to hit the target. One need only crumple to the ground. That’s what we want? The locker room/barnyard style of English discourse made general and spread among us? We can have it. We might even deserve it, assuming somebody doesn’t—here’s where this is going, maybe—start taking sponsors apart in retribution for their helping spread pollution, linguistic and moral alike.
The big expediter of language loosening is, of course, television, where moral standards march in step with economic aspirations. The looseners will one of these days hit a roadblock and pull back—likely well before we find Joel Osteen or Oprah entertaining audiences with $#[email protected]#$ this and *%$# that (to borrow from the old comic-book formulation for imagined swear words). At that, Dance Your Ass Off is about as low as many hope, or fear, to sink.
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