Language and Anarchy

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"Yeah, yeah, yeah -- you prude!" I can already hear the accusation coming my way. But who cares? "Yeah, yeah, yeah" right back at you, buster.

Preliminaries out of the way, let's get down to cases. No journalistic titan of the H.L. Mencken variety is "Meet the Press'" Chuck Todd. Yet he makes a point, which I am sorry to say few others are making, about the corruption of language and behavior. This comes after the chief magistrate of the nation, in a weekend rally, called Todd an SOB -- except using the actual words, not the initials. Todd objected. He thought a U.S. president shouldn't set bad examples by talking thus.

Of course he shouldn't. But that's merely a part of the cultural problem rampant in our time and place. One reason a U.S. president calls a newsman an obscenity is that he assumes that anything goes. And it does seem to, in our time and place, with openness of an unprecedented kind marking our public and private doings, untrammeled by rules dating, supposedly, from the horse-and-buggy days.

We Americans? We don't do rules. That stuff stopped half a century ago. We let it all hang out now, starting with anger and outrage, which we don't have to muzzle or hide beneath polite evasions the way people once did. We indulge in bald rhetoric and snap judgments. The differently minded aren't just wrong; they're evil, malicious, threats to peace and good order who oughta to be silenced or, failing that, told to get off the bus and walk home.

Donald Trump isn't the problem. Donald Trump is the symptom. The culture is the problem. We're the problem, in our adoption of modes and means that hinder the solving of problems -- in politics, on college campuses, you name it.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters calls for Trump's impeachment. Trump points to what he calls Congresswoman Waters' "low IQ." The congresswoman repeats her call for impeachment. Boy, oh, boy, isn't democracy great?

It would be, if letting it all hang out wasn't the central theme of politics or life.

Twitter is the logical communications instrument of the no-rules age: Upon provocation, you fire without aiming, taking it for granted your constitutional right to free speech enables any digital reaction whatever.

An accompanying point rarely draws attention, because recognition of it would spoil the fun. That point is that two -- or three, or many -- may play at the same game of attack and embarrass. Congresswoman Waters will tell you the same.

Bad language -- as it used to be called, back when "bad" and "good" were taken with a certain seriousness -- isn't a make-or-break issue. It's not that we don't know what "SOB" stands for. One can hear worse than the attribution of canine status to someone else without flinching, without clapping hands to ears and calling, "Mama!"

The same can be said of all the standard dictionary words hurled at Trump, starting with "crazy."

The point is the value of verbal restraint in maintaining peace. When you can say anything you like because you think it's funny (one of the excuses made for Trump), you get the idea you might get by with doing anything you want.

And you know what? We're not made for doing anything we want. That would mean anarchy: the war of all against all, everybody outraged at everybody else, with dominance going to those with the most brass knuckles.

Yet the more firmly that semi-anarchy becomes the linguistic rule, the faster we normalize the anarchic ideal itself. From the chief magistrate's scatological word for various non-European countries -- the word ended in "hole," if you've forgotten -- it's on to fresh dismissals from left and right alike, everybody in on the game, everybody losing.

"Prude, prude, prude!" Yeah, I hear you. I wish we might all hear with equivalent interest the anger and fury and rage we have inadvertently made a part of our daily lives.

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