The soiling of the American mouth
PORTLAND, ORE. — It's seems incredible that Jack Paar once had a nasty skirmish with the censors at NBC over a "water closet" joke on late-night television. But that was 40 years ago. Judging by the oaths, expletives, and innuendoes I hear on the tube these days, it's clear the censors have been reduced to very minor roles in the production process.
The latest evidence came earlier this month from the Parents Television Council. They looked at "family hour" programs during the just-completed TV season and found the use of swear words had increased by 78 percent since their previous survey two years ago.
I'd like to say I'm saddened and indignant about this information, but that would be like Claude Rains in Casablanca feigning surprise and claiming he was "shocked, shocked" to find illegal gambling in Rick's Cafe. Let's hope that classic film never gets re-made using current standards of acceptable dialogue. You can be sure the updated version would have Captain Renault exclaiming, "I'm %&$# shocked!"
But TV didn't start this trend. Coarse, crude speech has been creeping into all aspects of our culture for decades. It's been a popular way to rebel against parental authority, display contempt for the establishment, and prove that you are not a socially inept loser.
However, when we strip away political overtones and sociological analysis, I think dirty talking is basically childish behavior, an immature way of showing off. Early in life, children start calling each other names like "potty face." These days a lot of parents seem content to let kids find their own comfort level of shock talk.
Not long ago, I was parking my car at the grocery store, when three white teenagers emerged from the car next to mine, and one of them directed a stream of obscene insults at his companions, using slurs that are demeaning to women and African-Americans. None of them seemed upset by the outburst, and I know some people say we shouldn't be offended by this kind of behavior because it's just the way kids like to interact among themselves. Sort of a juvenile, scatological version of the Navajo code talkers.
But when dirty words are combined with racism and sexism, they bring a sinister element into the communication process. If someone repeats a slur often enough, it starts sounding like the truth. Would you want your daughter to go on a date with a boy who is constantly referring to girls with the B-word?
I once heard sportscaster Red Barber on National Public Radio, explaining how he decided to banish all bad words from his vocabulary because it was the only way he could ensure they would never accidentally slip out when he was calling a ballgame.
Perhaps someday broadcasters, and everyone else, will once again aim for Red's high standards of public discourse. But my big fear is that, having fallen headfirst into the linguistic water closet, we may never be able to climb out.