A couple of recent puffball articles have reported on a study conducted by a psychologist at San Diego State, to the effect that George Carlin’s seven unutterable “swear words” have become vastly more common in published books, magazines and newspapers since the 1950s.
Not to worry, say the authors, parroting the psychologist. It does not signal a decline in manners or morals. It’s all about “individualism” and “self-expression.” We should be happy, because the violation of norms gives people greater permission to express what they feel and how they feel it.
No decline in manners, they say. What, if not vulgarity, obscenity and profanity everywhere, uttered by members of both sexes and in print too, would qualify, in their minds, as a decline in manners? Not extending your pinky while you sip bouillabaisse from the skull of a defeated enemy?
Several years ago I was at a doughnut shop in rural Canada, and two teenage girls were sitting nearby, chattering about the naked body of one of their female classmates in gross and cruel terms. I had to tell them to clean it up. No surprise, that incident. We now have parades in all the big cities wherein people in various states of undress, including no dress at all, march to celebrate things that until yesterday were believed by both liberals and conservatives to be unhealthy, if not immoral. Sometimes they simulate their acts in public in front of children. Does that count as a decline in morality?
We in the United States have just undergone a political campaign remarkable for its crudity. What a shock it was — unless you have spent five seconds watching television or looking at something on social media.
“Yes, it’s true that at the Dirty Dozen Diner the cooks and waitresses cough, sneeze and spit while they sling the hash, and don’t wash their hands after they use the lavatory, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t get good service.” De putridis non est disputandum (“In decay, there can be no dispute”).
It does not occur to the psychologist or to the authors of the puff pieces that at the heart of good manners is a habit of not expressing yourself, of not putting yourself forward, of not forcing everybody to listen whether they like it or not. There are times, of course, when it is necessary to step forward and cowardly to hang back, but in general, a gentleman is too much concerned with the comfort of other people to be thinking about himself. Courtesy is a deference to others, particularly in situations that involve physical or social embarrassment.
Think of Shem and Japheth, covering with a blanket the nakedness of their old father Noah and walking backward lest they cast their eyes upon him. Or think of the courtly St. Joseph, who, when he learned that Mary, his betrothed, was with child, wished to break the betrothal quietly, lest he bring shame upon her.
Our Lord himself, who preached to thousands, and spoke home truths to the worst of sinners, those hypocrites who cannot smell their own sins, did not bully and swagger and blare out his individual personality; he seems to have preferred the silence of the mountains and the wilderness, where he could pray to the Father in peace.
In the annals of famous men there is nothing quite like his conversation with the Samaritan Woman at the Well for its combination of delicacy and blunt honesty.
But if you do want to express yourself, relying on vulgarity, obscenity and profanity ain’t a good way to do it. The film aficionado Joseph Mankiewicz is fond of saying that in the days before computer-generated images, directors actually had to tell stories. It’s commonplace among film historians that, during the Golden Age of Hollywood, you had to speak powerfully by suggestion, by a look in the eye, a motion of the hand or silence. Think of the moment in The Quiet Man when newlywed Maureen O’Hara, who has been holding out until she gets her full dowry from her brother, scoffs at her husband John Wayne for planting roses in the garden, rather than something like potatoes.
“Or children,” says John Wayne.
Filthy talk is like an old trollop: easy, cheap and lame. It expresses very little. Suppose you enter a bathroom that stinks of a clogged toilet. Do you gaze at the curtains? Of course not. Does anybody buy a copy of a sleazy magazine to look at the women’s faces? Of course not. If you walk downstairs at a hotel stark naked, will anybody listen as you describe your theory regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls? Of course not.
Tattoos, sometimes crude and always tacky, work the same way. I do not notice what the waitress has tattooed on her arm, only that there is a tattoo. A man with purple spiky hair does not cause me to look more deliberately at his countenance; all I see is purple hair.
When you rely upon filth, filth is what people remember. I am reading a novel by the Australian Nobel laureate, Patrick White. It is about a passel of unpleasant people, and it describes quite a few of their grubby adulteries. White is not to be dismissed, but I find that the filthy talk detracts and distracts; it’s as if George Eliot went slumming, got drunk in a brothel, and forgot half of what she knew about how to express a thought in precise and memorable ways.
So much for manners and self-expression. Now we turn to morals.
Let me draw distinctions. The vulgar is not necessarily obscene, and neither is necessarily profane. Vulgar talk may, depending on the situation, be a social indiscretion, a sin against good manners. It need not be; men in groups often use such talk as young rams butt horns against one another in play; it is felt rather as a good-natured punch in the shoulder. The meaning is: “You’re one of us.” The men understand that such talk is not for their wives and children, or for the general public, no more than communal showering would be.
In general, though, we are better off if we train our tongues to be polite, not coarse and crude. If you swear like a soldier in the trenches, you had better be a soldier — in the trenches.
Obscenity is different. Here we are talking about what ought to be kept off stage: Latin obscaenus. Bawdy talk, what Shakespeare indulged in, sometimes calling it “merry,” uses the human body, its bulk and awkwardness, and the somewhat ridiculous postures we assume in the act of generation, as occasions for a jest.
C.S. Lewis’ devil Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood that those sorts of jests don’t help much in damning a human soul. But you have a dirty mind if the jest becomes the occasion for dwelling upon the act. And then there is what is plainly obscene, as for instance what you find on many a television channel and, as I said above, in many a parade.
Obscenity is always a sin against chastity. It is always a violation of the Sixth Commandment. Jesus has strong things to say about people who look upon a woman with lust in their hearts. And that is only to look and think — not to speak or mimic or do.
Profanity is worst, according to its kind. It is an offense against the sacred. It is always a sin against the Second Commandment, that we shall not take the name of the Lord our God in vain. It is sometimes a sin against charity as well, as my tart-tongued cousin Peppino once advised me. When he said he never cursed, I reminded him of some rather broad sayings of his, but he grew serious and shook his finger at me.
“I never curse,” he said. “You’ll hear me saying so and so, and most of that means nothing, but you will never hear me say, ‘Go to hell.’”
That was true; I never did hear him say that. He could be crude, but he was not profane.
So to say that the spread of obscenity and profanity does not betoken a decay of morals is stupid on the face of it. It is like saying that the spread of venereal disease does not betoken a decay in public health, or that the notable presence of fecal bacteria in the water supply does not betoken a problem in the pipes or the watershed. But may we ask the psychologist and her puffers what they think would be a warning sign? Would it be, to make a wild guess, to have two out of five children born out of wedlock? Or children as young as 9 and 10 hooked on the porn they find everywhere? Or half of marriages ending in divorce? Or 1 million unborn children a year incinerated?
What difficult virtues do we wonderfully self-expressive people practice as a whole? Not thrift and prudence; we are in debt to the eyeballs of our children’s children. Not honesty; cheating on papers and exams is a fact of life in our colleges, and wasn’t there a great collapse in the economy several years ago, occasioned by shady high-finance trading? Not courage, we of the “safe spaces” and the moral truths that must never be uttered. Not justice; identity politics fairly rules her out, because that goddess is supposed to be blind. Not neighborliness; who? Not piety; we rather boast about how bad our forebears were, because that is the only way we can look good by comparison. Not wisdom, we of the sophomoric reliance upon “studies” and the nothingness of moral relativism. Why, then, should anybody be surprised if our language is ugly?
“Out of the abundance of the heart,” says Jesus, “the mouth speaks.” If your mouth is a toilet, what, then, must your heart be?
Anthony Esolen is a fellow at St. Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.