RIP: Society's lost sense of decency

Posted: Thursday, August 17, 2000

The gravestone will read: Born: 1776. Died: Sometime in the 1990s.

What died? Americas sense of class, that quality that separates the truly dignified and responsible from the uncouth rabble who are fast taking over. You can feel it, cant you? Isnt something terribly wrong out there, in the America of the 1990s and beyond?

Theres no sense of decorum or propriety any more, and decency may soon become an obsolete concept. What ever happened to the notion that your private life should be kept private, that some things simply were not for public consumption?

Youve seen, for example, the clods who whip out their cell phones and chat away in public. Its bad enough when they do it in their cars or trucks or SUVs, but at least in those cases theyre in vehicles and at least have the semblance of having their conversations in private. But what of those folks who yak ceaselessly in restaurants, on trains and buses and subways, loud enough to invade just about everyones ear-space?

My wife recently had this edifying experience: She boarded a subway car and sat down in one of the few available seats. The man next to her had a cell phone to his ear, gabbing away, when he suddenly lamented that he couldnt have a private conversation because some cheeky spoilsport had just sat next to him.

How many times have you been in a movie when, in mid-film, just as the plot thickens, you hear a funny chiming sound or an annoying series of beeps? Someone close by whips out the old cell phone and talks like the rest of the audience isnt there and didnt pay big bucks to seek the flick. Theyre trying to impress us, of course, but they forget that some impressions can be bad. Were not impressed that they have a cute little cell phone many folks do these days. Were impressed, and badly so, by their boorish and rude lack of consideration.

When this trend started is not clear, but we know what contributes to it. Few television talk shows today are about anything serious. Rather, theyre about folks with no class, no manners and the intelligence of the average cactus telling us intimate details of their personal lives wed prefer not to hear.

Two game shows in prime time now have high ratings. One Who Wants To Be a Millionaire tests our knowledge. The other, rated higher, shows people on an island who get to vote each other off every week. Its called Survivor, it has no appeal to the intellect and it is little more than a peek into the private lives of the games participants.

Our scorn for privacy is surpassed only by our obsession with profanity. Will you scream, hurl a Molotov cocktail at the screen or burn Hollywood to the ground if you go to the movies and hear the F-word one more time? Its use may have been an exercise of free speech and artistic freedom when screenwriters first employed it, but its persistence today reflects a lack of higher vocabulary skills. And its not just old fogies like me who think this way.

This past spring semester, I taught an opinion-writing class at the Johns Hopkins University. I had the students review two films: The Blair Witch Project, which came out in 1999, and Touch of Evil, Orson Welles film noir classic from 1958.

There were no neutral opinions of either movie. The college-age students either loved or hated each film. But their comments about Blair Witch were interesting. Half thought it was a great, scary movie. The other half felt the movie not only was not scary, but that it was an exercise in tedium about three college-age students who get lost in the woods, run around for three days shouting the F-word copiously and then get caught, 90 minutes too late for viewers liking, by the Blair Witch.

Its interesting that this movie was compared to Touch of Evil, in which Welles plays a racist, corrupt sheriff of a town on the Mexican border. At one point in the film, a Mexican detective, played by Charlton Heston (please rein in your laughter), tells Hank Quinlan (Welles) he wont interfere in a murder investigation.

You bet your sweet life you wont, Quinlan snarls at Mike Vargas, the Heston character. Of course, a cop as hard-boiled and dirty as Quinlan wouldnt have said sweet life. Hed have said something about the backside. But this was 1958. Such words werent used. In this case, it wasnt even necessary because Welles, acting superbly, uttered the phrase with such contempt and vulgarity that sweet life came out with the same meaning.

Thats what good writing, acting and directing will do for a movie. Dont expect it in todays films. Our societys standards have deteriorated to the point where superior verbal, reading and writing skills are no longer valued. Privacy and decency are no longer esteemed. Class is dead. All thats left is for the stone-cutter to hew out the dates on its headstone.

Gregory P. Kane is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.

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