I've been told that I am overly sensitive to foul language. But recent experiences have convinced me that our culture's ordinary, conversational verbiage has sunk to a low that warrants pushback not just from those (like me) who are offended by its coarseness, but from everyone who values good communication.
I recently stumbled upon the Amazon Prime series "Forever." The program's description appealed to me. Married couple June and Oscar live a predictable life that gets shaken up by a ski trip. I was not put off by the "TV-Mature" rating; I expected a program exploring a couple's marriage to involve some topics unsuitable for younger viewers. So I settled in and gave it a try.
Within 20 seconds of the opening dialogue the profanity began, due to excitement over a free fishing calendar. And it just never stopped. June and Oscar are steady, hardworking, caring people. They are quirky, awkward and adorable. And incredibly, they seem to really understand one another – despite their shared propensity for mindless profanity.
June and Oscar cuss when they are excited. They cuss when they are angry. They cuss for emphasis. They replace random nouns and adjectives with profanities. When June and Oscar are cold, they retaliate against winter by unleashing a shocking, interminable stream of foul, vulgar words into the offending environment. When they are happy, they swear joyfully. When they are frustrated, their curses are punctuated by tense facial expressions. They say vile things to misbehaving children.
Whether in conversation or monologue, June and Oscar are utterly incapable of completing more than a sentence or two without resorting to the use of foul words that, in almost every case, are not used to convey the words' meanings (which, incidentally, is the proper purpose of words), but for some other reason.
What that reason is, exactly, I am at a loss to identify. Is it to demonstrate rejection of traditional values? To shock the listener? (Hint: Shock is an experience that wears off for any viewer after approximately 17 uses of indecent language within the space of as many minutes).
Whatever the reason, these words appear to have been deemed, by virtue of their very foulness, "universal," available to replace an appropriate, meaningful word in any conversation, at any time, in any place.
Now, it's disturbing enough to find such degradation of language in a program created for entertainment. What is far more disturbing, however, is the realization that this program reflects the flavor of the conversations unfolding in your nearest shopping mall or secondary-school bus. Because, like it or not, a side effect of our culture's general acceptance of arbitrarily inserted vulgar words is the increasing inability or unwillingness of its members to engage in precise, creative, clever, intelligent discourse.
Young people will have little incentive to improve their vocabularies and conversational skills as long as it is socially acceptable to simply pull from a dozen words in the old reliable profanity stable and inject them into any conversational space. And this is a real tragedy, because the human ability to express complex, intense, delicate and difficult emotions and ideas through language is one of our greatest gifts and highest achievements.
Used artfully and eloquently, language has the power to encourage, move, and inspire the human spirit. It is, perhaps, the most powerful force at our disposal. Consider the profound and lasting impact of the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, the Declaration of Independence, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, the Gettysburg Address, or Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
To embrace low standards of speech is to diminish our society's potential to effectively use our most powerful tool for improving the human condition. It is laughable to suggest that the social "freedom" to pepper our speech with gutter-words is an aspect of "liberation" from standards of decency once shared by our ancestors. Like so many other trends couched in the language of "liberation," the degradation of language is not progress; it is regression.
Using foul, "universal" words to communicate is scarcely better than using unintelligible, inarticulate grunts. It forces us, like the beasts of the field, to decipher meaning from tone, body language and context. The words themselves are not only ugly, but empty.
I know that regardless of what I say, Amazon's June and Oscar aren't going to clean up their act just for me. But how about a different program rating, in the interest of truthful advertising? Don't call it "TV-Mature." The truth is, it's anything but.