Many people believe we are fighting a culture war in America, in which our arts, entertainment and public discourse are being incrementally dragged into the sewer.
If so, a significant battle in that war to retain dignity, wholesomeness and civility has been lost this week – with the advent of a purposely vulgar new show on, of all networks, CNN, called Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.
In prime time. On supposedly America’s most trusted name in news.
You can almost hear the network’s ratings-desperate producers’ thoughts – “Let’s push the envelope, let’s be edgy, let’s go where news programming hasn’t gone before” – as one vulgarity after another reaches America’s living rooms.
Several “F” bombs are censored, but that’s the only thing that is. Other profanity isn’t just allowed, it’s premeditated: Host Bourdain, in prewritten, prerecorded voice-overs, uses the “S” word. One gets the impression that he brings up one subject – the Rodney King beating – primarily so he can describe his profane memory of it.
This is from a food and travel personality.
The inaugural show Sunday seemed built around celebrating the bad behavior of Koreans in America. Now, that is a story angle you do have to seek out. And, of course, it makes for some edgy commentary by the subjects of the documentary: At one point, after describing a Korean dumpling as a scatalogical body part, several Koreans regale Bourdain with a description of a highly personal – what, prank? – that’s described as “like opening up an umbrella inside someone.”
Certainly, CNN is scratching and clawing for viewers and ratings, even as it offends and repulses most conservative Americans with its transparent contempt for them and their values. But this is a new and alarming escalation in the degradation of American culture.
If you think unconcealed profanity and open vulgarity in a culture is no big deal, we beg to differ. And in increasing instances, science does as well.
A 2011 study detailed in the journal Pediatrics shows a correlation in children between swearing and aggressive behaviors.
Intrinsically, we also know that such swearing connotes a lack of respect for oneself and for the subject of the swearing, be it a person, object or circumstance.
We also inherently know that a coarsening of our language cannot help but be accompanied by a debasing of the society in general.
It’s getting much worse, much more quickly than we might have imagined, too: In a 2010 report exquisitely titled “Habitat for Profanity,” the Parents Television Council reported a nearly 70 percent uptick in profanity on broadcast prime-time shows from 2005 to 2010. Use of the thinly veiled “F” word rose an astonishing 2,409 percent.
Of course, profanity is only one diagnostic tool to detect an ailing culture. Subject matters and situations in television shows and movies have become as sordid as the language, if not more so.
The trouble with such degradation is that, not only does it drag the culture into the sewer, but it feeds on itself: Once a particular word or depiction loses its ability to shock, more outrageous ones must be found to obtain a similar titillation.
“When swearing becomes simply reflexive and ubiquitous – as it is today – those words cease to have much power or meaning,” former Nickelodeon executive Anne Kreamer writes at the Harvard Business Review.
Repeated swearing also is a sign of a lazy mind – or perhaps one devoid of more appropriate words which, quite often, can be even more colorful. Keeping erudite language within reach requires thought, sophistication and effort, however.
We do wish more people would purchase a thesaurus – and buy less of the mental junk food the culture is peddling.
That there’s a culture war on seems increasingly evident.
That man’s better nature is losing that war is too.