itting in our living room watching the evening news, my wife and I suddenly turned and looked at each other, each of us disbelieving what we’d just heard. A CBS news reporter in an interview had just used a vulgar expression that “rhymes” with the name of a certain beast of burden.
Obscenity is becoming mainstream in the West—though this editorial deals particularly with the United States where I live. I’ve heard it more than once on Dr. Phil—even though I hardly ever watch the program. I’ve heard it on 60 Minutes from Mike Wallace. And topmost U.S. government leaders have blurted out profanity within earshot of microphones within the last two years.
Now I suspect that most of us reading this editorial are adults. Obscenities by themselves do not corrupt us. But they do assault our spiritual and aesthetic sensibilities. We feel violated, coarsened.
I like to laugh; and humor and comedy have been among my favorite shows on television over the years. But these days—and for a long time now—I’ve virtually given up on the typical American sitcom because of its heavy dose of vulgarity.
Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes, legendary for his wry, witty commentaries on everyday life, recently took on the issue of “dirty words.” “Americans,” he said, “are using stronger language and more obscenities than they did 50 years ago.” “[But] I don’t use them in conversation even with my closest friends in private and do not feel in any way restricted because I can’t use them in print.” He sees “a correlation between intelligence and the frequency of the use or nonuse of the most common four-letter expletives.” “My dumb friends use more profanity than my smart friends,” he said (Tribune Media Services, June 14, 2007).
I think we’re witnessing the death of what we used to call good manners. We’re descending into the vulgar. In the words of Norman Lear, “The problem we face is endemic in our society. [Don] Imus was the boil reflective of the disease and the unending coarsening of our culture.” The entire society is saturated with the problem. The Internet is awash with it. And so is much of contemporary literature.
It all reflects a lack of depth in the culture, an inability to summon the appropriate vocabulary for moments of conflict and tension. My family knows about my admiration for the writings of Charles Dickens, among other old-timers. They’ve seen me spend hours of holiday time watching the BBC’s dramatization of Dickens’ Bleak House, for instance—a marathon performance in seven episodes, covering scenes of hair-raising conflict and tension, without ever descending into vulgarity or crudeness. That’s class! And it calls for a command of the language infinitely beyond the inane drivel that today passes for acceptable script.
What got me going on this issue was a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York in a lawsuit brought by Fox Broadcasting against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC had cited Fox after pop singer Cher and celebrity Nicole Richie had blurted out obscenities on its programs. Fox claimed in its filing that the FCC’s ruling had “set a dangerous precedent” in regard to free speech. The court ruled in its favor. (See Washington Post, June 5, 2007, p. A1.)
Commenting on the development, Los Angeles Times staff writer Jim Puzzanghera observed that the appeals court’s decision “could reverberate through the government’s entire regime for keeping indecent language and images off the airwaves.”
“Overnight,” said U.S. Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, “the court called into question nearly 30 years of FCC precedents and regulations aimed at protecting children and families from obscene language and indecent programming during family hours.”
All this notwithstanding, I still find it a challenge to know how exactly to respond personally. How does one cut oneself off from the bulk of contemporary media and literature without becoming a cultural recluse—out of touch and irrelevant? Here’s where one craves the counsel of more experienced individuals who are also committed Christians and who have struggled with the same issues. What solutions have they found? How do they keep current without watching or wading through all kinds of profanity? What filtering mechanisms have they developed?
I’d welcome responses from experienced Christians. The situation is critical, and getting worse.
Roy Adams is associate editor of the Adventist Review.