National Review Online, an outgrowth of the magazine founded by the venerable conservative publicist William F. Buckley Jr., recently ran an article with a title I will not repeat. The first word was “liberal,” a bad word I am used to, but the second had no business appearing in a headline anywhere, let alone in a conservative publication. Not that any of us have not heard it, or even used it, many times before. Not that the term (which might best be translated as “bovine feces” for more sensitive ears) has not shown up as the subject and title of an academic book by philosopher Harry Frankfurt. But it seems to me that the mainstreaming of vulgarity has taken from us something important as a society, and that conservatives in particular should be lamenting and fighting rather than getting on board with this trend, and certainly should not be engaging in the semi-intellectualization of vulgarity to make themselves appear more “cool” than they should want to be.
Of course, to say anything at all against the trend toward “vulgar cool” is to be dismissed as hopelessly puritanical and out of date. Reminding people of a crotchety old man rasping about how “when I was young, we did not cotton to such language” hardly is a good way to gain a fair hearing, let alone the cache of being strong, independent, and fearless. And these are the only qualities that seem to be valued in public life today—when even our social democratic rulers claim they merely want to use government money to make everyone strong, independent, and fearless.
Even very young and old people know the words that “bovine feces” or for that matter “heck” or “gosh darn it” actually are standing in for. People have been using sometimes silly terms for generations to take the place of more guttural and/or clearly blasphemous words. The goal has been to avoid blaspheming or appearing vulgar, as well as to avoid offending people who care about blasphemy and people who believe one should show respect to others by being on one’s best behavior in public. Today, of course, our public ethic demands that each of us seek to be “authentic” or “true to oneself” by flaunting one’s most base and vulgar appetites and tendencies.
The trend toward vulgarity encompasses more than language, of course. Where a few generations ago no one would be caught outside in casual clothes, we now consider ourselves lucky that people wear clothes at all, and most of us have long been inured to the sight of piercings and tattoos once reserved only for peoples living in caves and huts. Things actually have improved a bit in recent years as even big city mayors figured out during the 1990s that allowing people to use the streets as toilets has a negative impact on commerce and tends to breed an atmosphere of chaos in which crime flourishes. But the limits are strictly matters of public hygiene. And, be it on the street, in the workplace, or in one’s own home, one is considered at best a prudish snob and at worst a would-be oppressor if one bemoans vulgarity. Standards of decency are not merely passé, they are positively taboo in a society enamored of breaking taboos.
Those who champion vulgarity have what seems the stronger moral position, these days. After all, at its root to call something vulgar is merely to call it “common,” and no one would dare come out against the “common” these days. But vulgar also means crude, or raw and unrefined. People tend to find these attributes attractive today as well. But primitive chic is highly overrated. The primitive often means the base, the unreflective, and even the brutal. It is something of which we have more than enough already, thank you, and which we do not need to encourage or emulate in pursuit of acceptance by people who should but do not appreciate the refinements that civilized life can and should bring to our emotions, our public habits, our institutions, and even our thoughts.
Almost all of us use vulgar language. Lord knows—as does my family—that I let loose more often than I should especially when attempting home improvements. So why should anybody care about television, film, and now web journalists joining in on the fun?
Because vulgar cool is demeaning to all of us, corrupting of public civility, and undermining to serious thought.
To take the most important point first, habitual recourse to vulgarity and, as important, forced toleration of vulgarity, demeans us as individuals and as a culture. One of the most important casualties of the war to force religion from our public life is the habit of reverence. Moderns refuse to bow down before rulers, which is mostly a good thing. But we increasingly refuse to bow down before anything. At the risk of sounding hopelessly Catholic, bowing down before one’s God is good for the soul. God does not require our worship; He is quite complete without our praise. But His love for us is so great that He wants us to fulfill our natures and, that nature being limited it requires recognition and reverence for the infinite if we are to achieve self-knowledge and self-mastery.
Part of developing the character necessary for reverence is protection of sacred spaces (e.g. Church). Another part is cultivation of an attitude of reverence and respect for public spaces. In our era of neo-pagan nature worship, we have lost the true, conservative sense of respect for the world around us, for God’s creation as something we should take seriously, not just in the middle of a forest, but also in the middle of the city. This is harder to do because of the garish, inhumane nature of so much of our built environment. But the very fact of being “in public” should be enough to make one concerned for the effects of one’s behavior on others, and the duty to show respect for those others by being, not meek and mouse-like, but self-controlled and civil in the sense of being part of a civil social order. To do less, and most of us today do far less, is to harm the public order and become something less—less civilized, less controlled, less fully human—than otherwise would be the case.
From this it should be obvious that vulgarity is corrupting of public civility. No one likes being told to have good “manners,” but customs and habits of mutual respect help us go about our lives and interact with one another, whether in commerce, in politics, or merely in passing, without undue friction. These interactions are less likely to be successful, let alone pleasant, when so many of us think it too much to ask that we refrain from f-bombs, or that we dress decently or otherwise behave in a manner that shows we “give a [feces]” about what anyone else thinks about us. And the loss of a public square in which we can comfortably interact with one another has meant that Americans, who at one time were the master builders of community and “social capital,” no longer interact with one another. Far better to look straight ahead, meeting no one’s eye, than to risk engaging in the jungle that is the city or suburban street today. Indeed, “the street,” meaning not just city sidewalks but universities, boardrooms, and all manner of public institutions, now belongs to the whiniest, the most easily offended, and the most frankly offensive among us, who are willing and able to scream about how they are “offended” by opinions with which they happen to disagree, even terming “microaggressions” any attempt to enforce the most basic forms of civil conduct. Political correctness enforces a hypocritical ethic in which the vulgar is cool while standards of behavior intended to make public life conducive to civil intercourse are “oppressive.”
Finally, constant recurrence to vulgar language makes us, or at least allows us to remain, stupid. We stop thinking when we revert to the old, base phrases that have been part of our vocabulary for millennia, and that come to us almost by instinct. Like all too many vulgarisms, “B.S.” has been given intellectual cache by those who should know better but for all too long have not, namely academics. Harry Frankfurt got himself a best seller, book awards, and a great deal of public attention by writing a very brief book (essay, really) on the topic. What do we learn from this tome, put out by Princeton University Press? That there are a lot of dishonest people out there who hide behind preening bombast. Thanks for clearing that up, Harry. The real accomplishment of the book has been the spread of this particular vulgar term throughout our public life, the addition of even more vulgar and useless books such as “[jerks, or if you prefer “a-words”] a theory” and tittering from the socially awkward classes who have dreamed for decades of being thought of as cool.
Euphemisms take intelligence to coin and use. They show respect for one’s audience—including those who may be less “enlightened,” “relaxed” or even “cool” than oneself. Perhaps it’s time to rediscover them.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.