Monday, May 12, 2008

Is it something in the water?

I have thought a lot lately about a different kind of pollution that seems to have settled on the area where I live. It may not affect our ability to breathe or prosper (although I am not too sure about that) but I think it makes life uglier than it needs to be. There seems to be an epidemic of rudeness, anger, and downright meanness that seems to surround us. And I guess it must be a contagious condition, because I too often 'catch' it and add my own ugly. I know it’s become a national joke but really, why can’t we all get along?

The world has certainly changed in my lifetime and (I like to tell myself), I am not that old. I remember, as a child, giggling when my aunts became so frustrated that they burst out with a “cowabunga” or “jiminy cricket. ” Part of what made me laugh was the non sequiter-ishness of the words. On some level, I think those words also taught me that frustration was universal but also that it was not so important that it required a violent response, that it was trivial and would pass. I recall hearing only one minor swear word as a child, whispered by an adult who thought no one else was present.
Believe it or not, kids, people didn't used to say every rude thing that came to mind. They undoubtedly had private conversations where they could vent, but they were not rude to each other in public. I think the big change happened in the 60's, so I guess my self proclaimed peace-love generation created, or at least encouraged, the trend.

Today, we have moved to a whole new level of rudeness. Expletives are included in virtually every publicly spoken conversation. I hear them in the office, the street, the line at the grocery store. People say them to each other, into their ever present cell phones, and when talking to themselves. We seem to have forgotten how to publicly restrain ourselves or at least express our feelings and concerns in actual language rather than rely on the ever-ready sexual and scatological expletives. We don't even hear the words anymore, at least not in their literal meanings, because it would surely give us pause if we did. (you want me to what?) The not-nice words are just as irrelevant as “cowabunga,” but not so funny, and instead of making me giggle, they make my stomach feel as if it’s tied in knots. What a shame to think that, instead of teaching self-respect and self-restraint to the “leaders of tomorrow,” our legacy is a bunch of clever new swear-word combinations. Isn't it just another example of the trash we are leaving behind?

Sometimes I fantasize that the silver lining of global warming might be that, when we can no longer waste our limited resources on nasty music and vulgar entertainment, we will learn again to talk, to spend time, maybe even to like each other. I suppose it’s too much to ask that we also pull taffy, churn ice cream, and pit cherries on the back porch . . . but I’m ready it you are.