In the high-tech world of social media, where the fake news thrives with the real, we've become a nation of voyeurs and eavesdroppers. Consuming the salacious is the guilty pleasure. We see and overhear a broad range of sordid comings and goings — what we used to describe quaintly as "dirty" — in the very vocabularies that were too embarrassing for general discussion and reserved for private conversations between close friends.
Public vocabularies have expanded to vulgarities that have become shockproof. Not much is X-rated.
Dirty speech that was only yesterday relegated to the locker room or stag parties with blue movies has overflowed into commonplace conversations in common space, by and for both men and women. "Open secrets" that protected male harassers in show biz, politics and even the mainstream media have escaped Pandora's box and made us all equal-opportunity dirty talkers.
The New York Times introduces a special section for children as "all the news that's fit to print for kids" to provide a "kid-centric" version of what's going on around us. In an article about "slime," a young reader could be forgiven for thinking it might be about something other than child's play with sticky, icky globs of goo. The young reader expecting that would be disappointed.
The omnipresent exposure to the slime of adult behavior has been going on for a long time, accelerated only now by the tools of social media. The rap lyrics with "bitches" and "hoes" describing — and celebrating — the imaginative abuse of women have immunized the young against the shock of rough language. The daily news of the behavior of politicians, media stars and show-biz biggies adds a new dimension to the cultural mashup.
It's easy to lose count of how many times the word for self-pleasuring (it begins with the letter "m") appears in the accounts — always on the front page — of Louis C.K. and Harvey Weinstein exposing themselves, however pitiful the sight may be. Rape, a four-letter word once spoken with horror, has become a commonplace accusation in the #MeToo movement as well as on the campus, where snowflakes flee to refuge from male aggressors — some actual aggressors, many merely imaginary.
While commentators rush online to say how horrible male harassment is, those accused of mean and gross deeds slink away with expressions of synthetic remorse and take refuge in luxury retreats dedicated to therapeutic rehabilitation from their medicalized misogyny. Euphemism, as in "inappropriate behavior," is the lingua franca for outrageous behavior, and it has enabled many guilty men to escape culpability.
But perspectives are changing, and some of the male explanations sometimes read like deadpan scripts for "Saturday Night Live." "These stories are true," C.K. said as he admitted that he put his manhood on exhibit for women. "At the time, I said to myself that what I did was O.K." because he never did it without asking first. (I'll bet.)
C.K., perhaps psychologically ruined by having a stunted surname, was regarded as a master in drawing on autobiographical insight and using it as comedy. But as cultural perceptions have changed, humiliating women is no longer funny. There's a sea change (or at least a river or creek change) in attitude toward entertainers and politicians. Not even former President Bill Clinton could get away today with his tawdry abuses of two decades ago.
Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic liberal magazine draws a direct line from the defense the Democrats provided Clinton to the indulgence they granted Weinstein for years. "The widespread liberal response to the sex-crime accusations against Bill Clinton found their natural consequence 20 years later in the behavior of Harvey Weinstein: Stay loudly and publicly and extravagantly on the side of signal leftists causes and you can do what you want in the privacy of your offices and hotel rooms," she says. Gloria Steinem has got to be ashamed of how she allowed her left-wing politics to slut-shame and victim-blame his accusers, who were credible witnesses all.
Flanagan wants the Democratic Party and the "machine" feminists to be held accountable for being on the wrong side of women abused by Clinton. And there are lessons here for the Republican Party, too, in what happens to senatorial candidate Roy Moore in Alabama.
"Political morality" may seem an oxymoron, but our children and grandchildren need to know that there are still responsible adults who, no matter their political affiliation, will protect them from a vulgarized culture — and scorn those who need disdaining, whatever the political cost. Politics is cheap, but the culture is priceless.