Last month, my mother and a friend attended a play performed by a local theater group. They expected an enjoyable evening, but shortly after the performance began, both were tempted to walk out. A sense of courtesy, perhaps misplaced, kept them in their seats-the audience was sparse and they didn't want to call attention to themselves. So they sat and endured, not so much what was done on stage as what was said. The language was so foul it amounted to assault with a verbal weapon.
Not so many years ago certain words were never heard in public discourse, which includes the movies. When Ali McGraw uttered an excremental phrase in Love Story (1971)-the first time I had ever heard that particular combination of the sacred and the profane-there was a gasp of startled laughter in the audience. From that time on, standards have slipped to the point where movies are more remarkable for the lack of vulgar language than for the inclusion of it. The industry may have reached a new low this summer, when the film version of South Park received a rare NC-17 rating based on the vileness of its language. After a few cuts the rating was upgraded to an R, but that didn't keep South Park co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone from whining to the press about "censorship." Mr. Stone complained, "The ratings board only cared about the dirty words." He went on to ask rhetorically why critics of his work did not object to the violence, but only the language.
That question may tie cultural arbiters in knots, but the answer is simple. Movie violence is fake, no matter how realistic it appears. This is not to excuse graphic violence or downplay its harmful effect, but still, it's fake. Words are real.
Words possess a versatility, substance, and subtlety that pictures do not. Words are the stuff of ideas, the vehicle of thought, and the essential element of language. Anyone who doubts their reality should try a simple experiment: See how many times he can ignore the word on a Stop sign and get away with it. Whiz-kid filmmakers insist that it's mere hypocrisy to be more concerned about words than bullets. But vulgar, vicious, and blasphemous words are bullets, riddling the soul.
Those who question their capacity for harm might also question the existence of a "soul." Judging by this summer's output, the entertainment industry is run mostly by spiritual thugs, to whom human beings are only clever animals with a gift of gab. If they are allowed to continue their cultural influence, this stunted view of man may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For civilization is built by language; a population becomes civilized when it becomes literate. Without laws, vows, records, and traffic signs, human beings would be reduced to primitive nomads. It's true that words have no authority or power in themselves. God's words are backed up by His Spirit, a dictator's words by his army, a democracy's words by common consent.
But smut and profanity also require consent, or at least acceptance. The public has been known to say, "Enough!" Back in the mid-1930s Hollywood cleaned up its own act, not from philanthropic motives but because ticket sales fell off: Parents had become alarmed by the detrimental influence of "it" girls and gangsters on their impressionable children. Producers voluntarily submitted films to the commission's Product Code Administration and generally agreed to its recommendations, which included expunging disrespectful words such as broad and cripes. The public approved, and the industry boomed again.
A population that agrees to be governed and advised by "good words," to its edification, can just as easily allow itself to be entertained, amused, and titillated by "bad words," to its detriment. More easily, in fact-who wouldn't rather be amused than edified? But words are real, and their misuse will have real consequences.
To spray obscenities in a movie or play for no particular reason is like pelting Grandma's dining room with the food off her table-using that which sustains and nourishes to sully or destroy.
"Only words?" One might as well say, "It's only meat, it's only bread, it's only water." Just as the human body is sustained by food, our culture is sustained by words. And our culture is not so sturdy that it can't be destroyed by them.