Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Coarsening of Society

Recently, my pal Jim introduced me to an intriguing new phrase, "the coarsening of society." He's a cantankerous old fart like me and was amazed that I'd never heard it before. It's all over the internet, he said. My first reaction was that "coarsening of society" was a new verbal weapon, like "political correctness," invented by the socially conservative right wing with which to beat liberals over the head in the Culture Wars. And when I looked for the first occasion of its use, I found a speech from 1984 by Ronald Reagan that included the following:
Without God there is no virtue because there is no prompting of the conscience... Without God there is a coarsening of society. And without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure. If we ever forget that we're one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.
But I also found uses of the phrase by liberals. In an article on "Television and the Hive Mind," Mack White criticizes talk shows like Jerry Springer's and the fad for reality television, and argues that these programs
contribute to the general coarsening of society we see all around us -- the decline in manners and common human decency and the acceptance of cruelty for its own sake as a legitimate form of entertainment. Ultimately, this has the effect of debasing human beings into savages, brutes -- the better to herd them into global slavery.
Clearly the "coarsening of society" is an equal opportunity epithet. John P. Hubert, Jr., writes that the coarseness of social injustice is spreading just as fast as sexual immorality.
In the United States there is a worrisome trend underway in which the differential between the income of the lowest wage earner and the corporate CEO is beginning to approach the truly immoral and unconscionable. At present it exceeds the ratio of most industrialized nations. These unjust and immoral notions are also exported to other nations just as our pornographic content is. Combined they contribute to an overall coarsening of society in which there is less and less concern for the least among us.
So what does "the coarsening of society" really mean? Jim looks at the world through the eyes of his elderly mother and is shocked by what she sees: public profanity, clothing that leaves little to the imagination, rudeness, vulgarity, a complete absence of manners and civility. What happened to our world? It was not always like this.

"The coarsening of society" assumes a fall from grace, from an Eden of innocence when life was simpler, quieter, less complex, and people were more polite and formal. We bowed to convention, in dress and behavior. It might have been the 1920's, or perhaps the 1950's; it could have been in a small town, perhaps in the Midwest. When I was 10, I lived in a town of 7,000 in western North Carolina. Everybody knew everybody else. People were friendly, neighborly. Of course if you were colored there was a different set of rules, and that past is not so romantically remembered.

Life has changed. That's one of the benefits of being old. You remember what it used to be like. But there are others ways of looking at it rather than through the lens of a fall. What about progress? Women no longer die from illegal back street abortions. Medical technology keeps people alive longer. The accumulated knowledge of the world is available online. The world no longer takes 80 days to circumnavigate. Is your glass half full or half empty?

Recent books by Jim Wallis and Michael Lerner point out that the right has a stranglehold on issues concerning moral values. If you worry about perceived threats to the family, such as abortion on demand, gay marriage and obscenity over the airwaves and in public places, then most likely you have voted Republican. But Wallis, founder of Sojourners, said, in a recent interview posted online, that "there is a difference between the leaders and the constituency. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson are genuine theocrats, and they do not want to see democracy take place. But a lot of their followers are just concerned about what they see as the coarsening of society." Wallis believes that this is
actually a genuine issue, but it shouldn’t be just a left or right issue. Being pro-family should mean you support aid for the poor, or family leave policies like they have in European countries, but when has the right ever done that?
Wallis and Lerner see a movement growing on the religious left that can reclaim the moral high ground currently dominated by the Falwells and the Robertsons. It must convince people concerned about their families that pre-emptive global war is a threat to them, chemical poisoning of the environment and global warming is a serious threat, poverty and the absence of universal health care are shameful, and the police state constructed by the Bush regime is no protection.

But what do we do about the pierced and tattooed youth with spiked and brilliantly dyed hair who swagger through our streets, blatantly exposing their midriffs and underwear?

Nothing. They may be our only salvation.

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