(** this was initially intended to be about the coarsening of language, but culture involves more than just words, and so it couldn’t help but expand into other areas.)
There’s a theory in law enforcement that revolves around broken windows. If windows are broken in a neighborhood, and the windows remain broken, people think it means that other laws and limits are not enforced, and social degradation increases. If you want to make sure that people obey the big rules, you enforce the small ones, and the practice of adhering to standards provides the foundation for civilization. New York City was cleaned up by not letting the little things go.
People pay attention to what they see going on around them and behave accordingly.
Morality (or ethics, if morality is too religious for some) is much like that – if you want people to pay attention to the big rules, you can’t let the little ones slide.
It used to be that people KNEW (because it was TALKED ABOUT PUBLICLY) that there were behaviors that were not socially acceptable. That isn’t to say that the behaviors weren’t occurring, but they were NOT done openly, and if someone did get caught violating the RULES, they would at least be shamed, if not prosecuted. They would definitely NOT be praised or idolized for it.
Something happened on the way from then to now – the entrenchment of MORAL RELATIVISM. There is no longer a definite RIGHT and WRONG – it has somehow become socially UNACCEPTABLE to say IN PUBLIC that something is wrong, or even that you simply don’t agree with it. Shaming someone for doing wrong? No, the shamers are now the shamed.
If you aren’t allowed to point out that someone’s windows are broken (or even that their broken windows are a problem), why would anyone know they need to fix them? The ability to solve situations and make things better is dependent on being able to SPEAK THE TRUTH. You have to be able to identify what is wrong if you want to succeed in righting it.
If there is no speaking against bad behavior allowed, no shaming practiced, then the behavior itself is all that is seen, and it is viewed as equally good with any other choice. Which means the young and impressionable around us are more likely to choose the wrong example.
It’s like handing out condoms at school – failing to say that a behavior is wrong is tantamount to endorsing it. It is also taken as meaning that the behavior is not only OK, but EXPECTED (you’re going to do it anyway – EVERYONE does, and there must be something wrong with you if you don’t.).
Coarseness of culture and language has become the norm of the day. We now glorify the people who were the bad behavers of yesterday, and denigrate those who try to maintain standards.
There was a time when comedians had standards of decency that they had to maintain, but at some point the balance flipped, and coarseness and crudeness became the norm – you were EXPECTED to curse, and if you didn’t, then you were abnormal. AND inferior.
You can also be treated as abnormal now if you don’t write life the way “the powers that be” want it to be. Political correctness has taken precedence over what used to be a solidly understood right and wrong. This means that some things just can’t even be written.
This is a problem. Good fiction is supposed to be a way of discovering and exploring the truths about what it’s like to be human. There is a difference between writing a fantasy about people, and fantasizing that people are different than they are. But if there are truths that you are not allowed to write, then what is the point? What are you leaving out? And what does that teach?
What’s our responsibility as writers?
Maybe we should think about the examples that we put out there in the worlds we create. And maybe we shouldn’t kowtow to the feeling that we MUST use coarse and vulgar language to be taken seriously. There are ways to convey what the gutter is like without having to grovel in it.
And maybe our worlds – as much as they are imagined into creation - should be a balanced reflection of the span of human experience, capability, and character instead of just forcing ALL HUMANITY into the mold of the lowest common denominator.
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William Mangieri’s writing can be found in many places, including:
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