Thursday, February 7, 2013

A culture of coarseness

As a long-time reader of The New Yorker, I remain surprised that conservative editing prevails in certain minor matters of style (punctuation, the spelling out of numbers, for example) while the writing itself can sometimes be as crude as the popular culture seems to demand.

In this week's issue, the magazine's editor, Adam Gopnik, reviews several books on Galileo in an intelligent, in-depth article which nevertheless has a colloquial, irreverent tone that seems designed to appeal to undergraduates and other immature readers: I refer to the use of "crap" and "bullshit," as if the article would be dull and off-putting if it didn't contain the standard amount of cool talk.

So too the Jon Stewart show, which drops the f-bomb regularly, to the delight of the studio audience, which howls with delight, as if this much-overused obscenity were a clever surprise. It is almost de rigueur on the Comedy channel, on Bill Maher's Real Time (where being real often means being crude), and others like it.

I don't why the coarse language bothers me: is it because it shows a lack of imagination and maturity?  Maybe it's because it seems like pandering to the prolonged adolescence of so many in the audience, who expect, along with dumbing-down, a regular dose of vulgarity.

I was reminded of this recently in Stephen Miller's book Conversation, a history of the (almost) lost art of civilized discourse, in which he quotes a Washington Post article on the view of many teachers: that students are using inappropriate language more than ever. "Not only is it coarsening the school climate and social is evidence of a decline in language skills. Popular culture has made ugly language acceptable and hip."

Since language is always a mirror of our thinking and culture, it is not implausible to see some connection between the ugly violence of so much of society and its ugly speech.  In a world where texting, sexting, phone sex,  and virtual girlfriends erect barriers between people who seek genuine intimacy, it is not surprising to find a lack of authentic communication. Or to see ads proclaiming: "The Ipod is your best friend."

When parents and teachers do not insist that young people use mature English, when they are allowed to be impolite, the result, it seems to me, is a hardening of the bond that should exist between people, who search desperately for something personal, cordial, and authentically human in their relations with others. Instead, they are met by violence in the media, both in language and action, and a general decline in good manners.

I don't oppose the use of vulgar and obscene and profane words--all appropriate in some circumstances. I just oppose their obligatory use and the resulting coarseness that can harden our hearts.

Since writing this, I have seen two movies that, in their absence of sexual explicitness and street talk, are all the more remarkable: a droll comedy, Two Brothers and a Bride, about farm boys who go off to Russia in search of a wife; and The Kid with a Bike, which I write about separately. Of course, the latter is in French and so I might have missed a few verbal bombs. (3-26-13).

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