While my memories might verge on the edge of fuzzy nostalgia from time to time, I remember quite clearly what the women and men of the 1970s did, said, and believed in small-town American neighborhoods. In those years, I absolutely loved reading (and researching and writing), but I also loved running, biking, and exploring. I could be… rather… well… hyper. When I got too hyper and misbehaved, neighbors (usually women, as the men were at work) corrected me. I do not remember ever being spanked by a neighbor, but I certainly remember receiving stern “talking to’s.”
The worst thing to befall me at the time, of course, came if the neighbor decided to call my mom and let me know that I had misbehaved. If it went that far, I had embarrassed not just myself but my entire family.
Regardless, in the 1970s, it was not just the right but the actual duty of the neighbor to discipline when necessary. I certainly never questioned this, though I did sometimes fear it.
I also remember eating at a good but not excellent restaurant in my hometown of Hutchinson, Kansas, when I was in fourth or fifth grade. A man at another table cussed. When he did, heads turned, but everyone let it slide, presuming it was a one-time outburst. When he continued to offer foul language at full volume, however, the other men in the restaurant became agitated, formed a small group, and approached the offender, letting him know in no uncertain terms that he had crossed a line and needed to cease such behavior. My memory is that he needed no more persuasion after the others approached him. Indeed, he quieted immediately. Most likely, the men who approached the offender did not know each other, but they had a common purpose once he disrupted the family atmosphere. They knew it, and so did everyone else in the restaurant.
Why these autobiographical stories? Because in 2015 I am lucky if I can get out of a Wal-Mart without overhearing another shopper dropping the f-bomb, usually at her or his own kids. What happened between 1975 and 2015? A lot, apparently. But, it is not just Wal-Mart. It is in nearly every airport (once distinguished by some class—in dress as well as in language), in nearly every shop, and, certainly, at every gas station. Now, however, such horrific language is not just in person-to-person to communication in public places. TV shows—at least the science fiction ones I like—use sh*t without even the pretense of restraint, and even ostensibly family-oriented podcasts about culture drop the f-bomb without even a semblance of discrimination.
Without being prissy, let me make two comments about the frequent and unabashed use of foul language. First, it is always and everywhere violent. I do not mean this in the modern “trigger-warning” sense used by the weak of soul to protect their equally feeble politically-correct views. I mean this exactly as is. The use of such sexual and barnyard epithets demeans the very integrity of the human being as a unique bearer of the imago dei. This is as true of the one employing such terms as it is of those on the receiving end of such foulness.
Second, and equally important, a recourse to coarse language speaks volumes about the lack of creativity and imagination in our post-modern society. Really, imagine a culture and its inhabitants that have to resort to such language to describe nearly anything and everything in sight and out of sight.
One of America’s most insightful cultural critics, Tom Wolfe, has correctly labeled this relatively new usage and over-usage of a horrific vulgarity, a “patois.” In a rather comic passage in his profound and disturbing look at the very deconstruction of an intelligent young woman’s soul, I am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe notes with surprising effectiveness that the foul word that was once a description of what one barnyard animal does to another has become so omnipresent that the only time it’s really not employed in the language is when it’s meant to describe what it originally meant. “Rarely—the usage had become somewhat archaic—but every now and then it referred to sexual intercourse.”
As Wolfe so unglamorously yet artfully demonstrates, in its habitual unmeaning, the meaning behind the frequent use of the word is all too clear and reveals all too much about us. None of it good. We post-moderns no longer possess souls or minds for beauty, truth, or goodness. We are hollow men, and, at some level, we know this. Honestly, we might have very well sold our souls sometime over the last generation to the father of darkness himself.
What is equally frustrating is that such language had not only become commonplace, but it has also seeped into all aspects of media and culture. Regrettably, this has proven as true for the cultural Right as for the Left. One might actually find it consistent with a Leftist desire for equality in all things to embrace what was once only said in biker bars, in prisons, and in naval ports. Why not take the extreme of low and make it the equivalent of high?
We certainly cannot blame the Left alone. As conservatism has become the property of the attention seekers, the radio sophists, and blond-plastic commodifiers, a fundamental tenet has been lost in this world: the absolute need for a conservative to be a gentleman or lady.
How can we ever conserve goodness if we fail to uphold beauty?
This is, frankly, a simple matter of decorum. Manners, as Cicero understood, as George Washington understood, and as Russell Kirk understood are not the province of the rich and the powerful. They are the province of all men and women of good will. When we dress appropriately, speak appropriately, and even eat appropriately, we are not being haughty or pretentious. Quite the opposite. We are honoring the others near us. In our decency, we are proclaiming the decency of the other. Far from arrogance or stuffiness on the part of the mannered, manners tell others that they matter, that they deserve dignity, and that we are willing to honor them.
The use of proper words does not reveal how uptight a person is, but how much they value another.
In so many ways, we moderns and post-moderns have turned the world of our grandfathers and grandmothers on its head. And, the more we do it, the less we realize we are doing it. Bad is good, evil is interesting, truth is subjective, and beauty only in the eye (or mouth and ear) of the beholder.
Do I have any profound advice? Why, yes, I think I do. It’s nothing new, however, though our generation seems to have forgotten the just scoldings of our mothers and grandmothers. The next time you’re tempted to say something disgusting, think about your someone whom you once deeply respected wanting to wash your mouth out with soap. She had a point. Do you really want to eat out of the same mouth that just defecated all over the front of your shirt? Do you want your daughter to kiss you on the cheek good night, immediately after you smeared excrement all across your face?
The next time you hear another using a foul word in public, question them about it. “Really, is that what you meant?” The chances are quite good you’ll receive an earful of even more “colorful” language. The chances are equally good that you will have planted a vital question in a person’s mind and soul. And, if not that person, perhaps another.
It’s time not to just clean up the trash from the sidewalks and gutters, but from our very mouths, minds, and souls.
Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.