The 'inappropriate' generation A word gets a workout, helping users fudge truth and avoid responsibility

May 03, 1998|By Judy Oppenheimer

Former Miss America Elizabeth Ward Gracen recently announced to a jaded world that she is now sorry and has realized it was "inappropriate" to jump into bed or the back seat of a limo or a culvert, or wherever it was, with a married governor.

Her apology, aimed at Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of the then-governor in question, left more than a few people questioning why this was something she suddenly needed to get off her chest, particularly on network television. Gracen, who fled the country to avoid testifying in the Paula Jones lawsuit, was married at the time of her one-night stand with Bill Clinton. She said the meeting took place in 1983, a year after she was crowned Miss America at age 22.

Now that Gracen's story has dropped out of the news, I'm still pondering something that needs attention: her use of the word "inappropriate."

"Inappropriate" has had a hard workout, mostly by the social worker set. Gracen is clearly one of those who grew up hearing it applied rampantly, almost nonstop. My favorite use of the term occurred quite a while back, when a kindergarten teacher wrote me a terse note saying my 5-year-old had raised one of his fingers in an "inappropriate" gesture.

I ask myself: Inappropriate to whom?

Surely this is a natural question. With my son, clearly the gesture had fit his mood on a particular day, no matter how unwelcome, even horrifying, it might have struck his teacher. It was inappropriate, then, solely to her - a point that warrants noting. Perhaps, too, it would have seemed inappropriate to an entire auditorium of her peers, social workers and elementary school teachers, had they been around, but this is theory, not fact. At the moment when my little boy raised his finger, no such audience was present. The only peers in the room were his, not hers, and it is unlikely that even those sophisticated enough to take his meaning would have found it out of place. Those who lacked such sophistication would have been even less concerned.

Similar questions could be raised about Gracen-Clinton business.

No doubt neither participant felt that what he or she was doing was inappropriate at the time. It most likely felt all too rousingly appropriate. It was only in retrospect that any possible inappropriateness made itself manifest, making it retroactively inappropriate behavior.

But, of course, this situation is different from the one with my son. Gracen is not 5 years old, and she is not being chastised by a teacher. In fact, she came up with the word as the best description of her behavior.

"Inappropriate" got popular around the time similar words such as "nonproductive" were climbing the charts. Both were fondly considered to be nonpejorative, noncritical descriptions of behavior, which might cause the person performing the action to see the error of his or her ways without, God forbid, suffering any guilt.

Put aside for the moment the possibility that there might be some behavior that should bring a little guilt in its wake (and between the two incidents, I'd opt for the action involving the married governor as the more likely one). Even without that, these words, awkward and annoying as they are, were meant for social workers, counselors and occasionally parental use. It was never expected they would be used by the perpetrators.

Certainly, for Gracen to use the word "inappropriate" about her own behavior changes the atmosphere a great deal. When Jesse's teacher used it, she was announcing her own cool, reasoned reaction to a miscreant. She hadn't smacked him or screamed. After all, she was handling it all I well, appropriately. In fact, she was taking the just-as-traditional route of tattling on him to his parents, but nevertheless she could tell she was being a consummate professional. And face it - it was a better choice than slamming him across the room. The fact that her use of the word did little to hide her horrified reaction from him (a reaction that would have pleased him deeply) is immaterial. At least she was trying.

But what did Gracen do? She told us she doesn't think she did anything bad. How do we know? Because she used the one word that has done yeoman duty during the past 30 years in such circumstances. And because she used this word about herself, not someone else, you know that she is not attempting to put the best face on a bad situation, or that she thinks she was acting like a dirt bag but is trying to keep a professional demeanor. No way. She said "inappropriate," and that's as self-critical as it's going to get. It was off- track, you might say.

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