'BUMBLEBEE, BUMBLEBEE, bite that goddamn referee.' -- American college football cheer, circa 1942
Seven or eight years ago, when my son was around 7 years old, he appeared on the back patio and announced that some activity had incurred his displeasure. Only he didn't use those words. He used a five-letter word for which there is no euphemism and you either know what it means or you don't and if you do, then you know it is a word used to describe what we used to call an unnatural sex act. In his case, it turned out that he had no idea of what it meant and I was not so enlightened that I was about to tell him. Quite the contrary. I used the good, old-fashioned approach, which was to say that the term was vulgar and I never wanted to hear him use it again.
That was a mere seven years ago, let me remind you, but a lot has happened in that time. It is now possible, for example, for the price of a mere ticket of admission to go to the Capital Centre and hear a crowd of hockey fans chant the very same expression to the members of the visiting team. A Baltimore fan expressed the same thought about the Red Sox this past summer in the form of a grass carving near the pitcher's mound. If you were lucky enough to get a playoff ticket for the Philadelphia-Dallas game, you could have heard several thousand Philadelphia fans express their displeasure at officials' calls by chanting an eight-letter word for excrement. They might make the same contribution to the Super Bowl ambiance this Sunday.
The vulgarization of American discourse is by no means confined to sports fans. Thanks to television, it is now possible to hear actors and talk show guests express their opinions by referring to ideas they disagree with as "bull" and "crap." Barry Commoner achieved a certain notoriety when he used the Philadelphia term in his presidential campaign advertising. Our very own mayor, Marion Barry, once told a gathering of citizens that the City Council chairman was full of a short form of the Philadelphia term. I have heard women executives given impossible male attributes.
There is always some risk in discussing vulgarity, not the least of which is that the moment you bring it up you are automatically labeled a prude. Being a prude and working in a newsroom are mutually exclusive. Being married to a former marine turned sports columnist and being a prude are also mutually exclusive. I live in a house where sleeping teenage sons have been awakened in the same inspirational language that some benighted dril sergeant used on Parris Island. It might be fulgar and it might be off-color, but at least it is funny.
Which is something that is missing in our current use of language. There is nothing funny about several thousand people chanting a vulgar term to a referee or to the opposing team. And while it isn't funny, it isn't very expressive either. We have trivialized the most pejorative terms in our language by overuse.
Part of what has happened has to do with laziness. It is vastly easier on the intellect to dismiss something with a vulgar term than to deal with it on its merits. Perhaps part of it has to do with frustration, anger, a need to assert ourselves, to be heard. And part of what has happened has to do with the new openness or the new sexuality or whatever we are calling it this week. It is the kind of atmosphere that fosters freedom of expression, but instead of using that to elevate the level of public discourse we have used it to debase it.
"I think what we are celebrating is amorality," says Thomas Cottle, an author and lecturer in the department of psychiatry at Harvard. "What we are saying is no constraints are good.Goethe said constraint is an art. We are saying constraint is an absurdity. Civility is seen as old-fashioned. . . .It's a very vulgar culture."
Vulgarity is offensive. Cottle says it is a form of aggression: "You get to say whatever you want and if it offends you that's your problem." So it's offensive and aggressive and the prevailing attitude seems to be to tolerate it. Cottle says vulgarity is tied up with the kind of mentality that cares nothing for other people's values and sensitivities, that it's destructive, that it is wrapped up with the idea that if it sells, do it, and if it feels right, do it. A culture can't survive that way.
A lot is being written these days about the clock swinging back and a return to the '50s. Freedom of expression hardly flourished back then and I am not exactly eager to go back that far. But part of what is happening now is a search for balance and moderation. Perhaps as part of the new beginning, we might look at the English language and go back just a few years to a time of greater restraint.