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The New Vulgar

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Many years ago I was taking a group of children on a walk through a big American city. We stopped for ice cream and a man next to us was talking loudly and using the f-word about four times in every sentence. Quietly, I reminded him that children were in earshot. His look said he could have battered me with his fists for interfering and being holier than thou and prissy in the extreme. I felt I had to say something.

I think a good swear word is important at certain times, and if you can't use them, as some psychologists say, you may have a personality defect. They're like an animal shaking off his anxiety, or whatever it is they do. But we have to keep children innocent.

I confess that I was raised in a family eons ago that was devoutly Catholic and gentle. I didn't see much crudeness when I was growing up. I had to work on getting some good swear words into my vocabulary, and even now I use them mainly when I'm alone. But they are very satisfying and healthy.

I'm aware, too, that the f-word doesn't have the power it used to have and signifies something far different from what it did when I was young. Today it seems to have the meaning of "very" or "indeed," with a satisfying touch of vulgarity.

But here I'm not interested in the f-word as much as the kind of vulgarity we have seen in the recent election debates and in the speeches and reactions of certain politicians. They not only speak with profound vulgarity, they seem to think vulgar thoughts and equip themselves with a vulgar political and social philosophy.

What is vulgar? Centuries ago it was the common life, nothing fancy and little refinement. In that sense, I grew up in a vulgar community on a working-class street on the East Side of Detroit. I enjoyed it and still appreciate my own innate simple vulgarity. They even call the first Latin version of the Bible the Vulgate, and, as far as I know, you won't find the F-word there. But later the word vulgar deepened into a synonym for profane and low-life. That's the vulgarity I'm complaining about.

In the recent election process I find Bernie Sanders vulgar in the ancient manner of the Vulgate Bible and Donald Trump vulgar in the new sense of low-life. The new vulgar appeals to the raw emotions, to the feral soul or reptile brain that has yet to be educated and brought up in humane society. Sometimes it's pleasant to have the rodent side of the self roused and brought into play. But not in the serious business of electing a president. Maybe on a camping trip with old buddies or among girlfriends.

I am hopelessly and maybe even neurotically old-fashioned, but I long for the day when we return to jackets and ties and clothes that cover the body and may I's and avoiding references to various body parts and to things you do in private. Grace in social relationships and yes, even election debates, is not superficial but acknowledges our common humanity and dignity and allows us to disagree without being disagreeable to a low-life degree.

The sad thing is that the debaters can sink to the basest levels of discourse, fully tapping into the rodent channels of the brain, because there is a sufficient number of followers charmed by that level of interaction. It isn't that a few people running for president suffer from a lack of culture, but that millions of citizens seem to respond favorably to Neanderthal language and brute conceptions of government and world community.

What would you think of someone on your street building a wall to shut our his neighbors? You would certainly wonder about how he would do on a psychological intake test at the local mental ward. That's another kind of vulgarity, low-level xenophobia.

Maybe the problem lies with our approach to education. We believe in information and technical skill but seem to have forgotten that being a human being in a community of sensitive people requires a degree of refinement. Knowing how to act in public doesn't come naturally. You have to learn the skills and be awakened to their value. You have to mature as a person.

I used to think that as we choose a president we wouldn't think too much about looking for a mature human being for a candidate. We'd take that qualification for granted. But today I'm re-thinking my old assumptions. The problem in our government is not that the institutions were not well constructed but that the people who find their way into leadership are often hopelessly immature and emotionally can't handle the demands of the job. The issue is more psychological than political.

Vulgarity is part of life. It can be fun. But when it's unconscious and a defect of character and practiced in the wrong situations, it's time to try out some old-fashioned politeness and an exquisite sense of what is appropriate. We might try manners, respect, lofty ideas and even a sense of the sublime.