The vulgar and the uncivil: creatures of the e-culture

June 18, 2000|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- In physics, a "unified field theory" purports to explain all fundamental relationships between elementary particles. With summer, and more "gross-out" movies, arriving, it is time for a unified field theory of contemporary vulgarity.

Someday, cultural historians sifting the shards of America's fractured taste and manners will note that the late 1990s were golden years for that movie genre. In "There's Something About Mary" (1998) ... but wait. How to describe the problem of the desensitizing of America without aggravating the problem? Journalism must here justify some indelicacy.

In "Mary" a man gets his genitals caught in his zipper, and years later when he meets Mary for a date, unaware that the result of masturbation is deposited on his ear, she mistakenly uses it as hair gel.

The highlight of "American Pie" (1999) -- it cost $11 million to make and has grossed, so to speak, more than $230 million worldwide -- is a young man having sexual intercourse, so to speak, with a pie.

"South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" (1999), a crudely drawn cartoon musical, was a pastiche of flatulence jokes, a giant clitoris and permutations of the F-word. Highlights of this year's "Road Trip" are the sperm bank scene and the way a waiter removes the powdered sugar that a customer did not want on the french toast he then eats.

Now, such movies have funny moments -- execrable taste can be a guilty pleasure -- and will always have an audience among adolescents. But such movies are finding adult audiences, which suggests diminishing differences between adults and adolescents.

And not only in America. John Gross reports in the New Criterion that a hugely popular British television show "features such stunts as thrusting a see-in-the-dark camera down the trousers of a member of the audience and taking live footage of his penis." During her guest appearance on the show, a member of Prime Minister Tony Blair's Cabinet made a clitoris joke.

The vulgar are always with us. However, today's casual coarseness suggests that it is a facet of a larger phenomenon, of which incivility is a part.

Incivility is becoming normal.

The Zagat Survey, which reviews restaurants, reports that complaints about service have tripled in five years. Customer service complaints by air travelers doubled last year. The shrew at the next table, bellowing into her cell phone? That imbecile in the car behind you, who tailgated up to the intersection and now is leaning on his horn because you want to turn left? Nancy Ann Jeffrey, writing in the Wall Street Journal, suggests, plausibly, that America's epidemic of such rudeness may be a "dark side of the New Economy."

It has showered sudden wealth on many people who behave as badly as the arrivistes in Balzac novels. Worse, actually. Balzac's parvenus were ignorant of, but not hostile to, manners. Today's are both.

They are creatures of the e-culture that, Ms. Jeffrey says, "glorifies speed over decorum and innovation over tradition." With their cell phones, pagers, Game Boys and other high-tech toys, these arrested-development 13-year-olds do not distinguish between being in private and being in public. Wherever they are, they are the center of the universe, served by gadgets that -- like their stock market windfalls -- tell them, Ms. Jeffrey says, "they can have whatever they want when they want it."

The sovereignty of wants becomes the imperialism of whims; impatience turns appetites into aggressions among those for whom today's technological marvels are mere instruments to facilitate their self-absorption. People who, while dining or driving or walking down the street are electronically disassociated from their social context, are not so much antisocial as unsocial. But the result is the same: boorishness.

Because they immoderately value efficiency and crave immediacy, they are impervious to the idea that manners should soften social life. Literature is painfully slow for these high-tech barbarians, so Moliere's "Misanthrope" may be as foreign to them as Mongolia, and they probably think they are having a new idea when they say considerateness and other social conventions impede "honesty," "authenticity" and "sincerity."

A version of that idea invests gross-out movies with an aura of seriousness, even social benefaction: Such movies supposedly enlarge liberty by being "iconoclastic" toward "taboos." Hence this unified field theory of today's vulgarians: Infantilism, meaning life lived in subordination to elemental and unedited appetites, increases rapidly when prosperity puts technological sophistication at the service of a society decreasingly sophisticated about other matters, such as manners and why they matter.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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