In the early morning – obscenely early by most Americans’ standards – is when the ideas that spur deeper contemplation usually occur to me. Perhaps that’s because the more recently awakened is one’s mind, the more likely it is to perceive without distraction. The world certainly provides a wealth of distractions, but at 4:00 AM most of them are still abed and asleep. At any rate, I’m less likely to focus on them.
This morning I have a striking parallelism in mind. It concerns the way in which certain things – in one case certain words and ideas; in the other certain human actions – have been driven from acceptability to virtual criminality. The links between them are disapproval and our dislike of being disapproved.
After the conclusion of World War II, agencies that had been at work among American liberals began to attack the prevailing notions about the races. Let there be no ambiguity about this: the great majority of American Caucasians were uneasy when around Negroes, thought little of their capabilities, and wanted to live apart from them. Moreover, typical American Caucasians were unabashed about saying so. For example, until the Brooklyn Dodgers signed the greatly talented Jackie Robinson in 1947, the professional sports leagues made no allowance for them. But sentiment toward treating the members of all races according to their merits was growing.
During roughly the same period, there arose a tumult, originally concentrated at certain colleges, over “free speech.” I don’t have all the details, but from what I’ve read the University of California at Berkeley was where matters came to a head. The student-led movement claimed that students’ freedom of expression was abridged by university rules that strictly forbade political activities. The University eventually capitulated to the movement’s demands, but matters didn’t rest there.
In both cases, the critical wedge was disapproval. American Caucasians generally were shamed out of prejudging Negroes according to their racial category. To suggest that Negroes were somehow less able than Caucasians became effectively unspeakable; to utter such a conviction would get you tossed out of “polite society.” Similarly, the student activists shamed university administrators out of their staunch prohibitions against on-campus political action. They became embarrassed at the suggestion that collegians should have fewer rights than adults in the society beyond, simply because of their ages and educational status. The suggestion that “those kids” were “too immature” to be permitted political postures and activities became as unspeakable as any talk about differences between white and black.
The politicization of university campuses and the movement toward “desegregation” both blossomed from those sources. In both cases, what had previously been common was de facto shamed out of existence.
In the late Fifties, other sentiments were changing as well. Owing to the rise of certain entertainers, notably including Lenny Bruce, words and phrases previously deemed publicly unspeakable – mainly vulgarisms about sex and biological waste products – were entering our common lexicon. What had previously been an offense that would get one bodily ejected from a social gathering slowly crept into ordinary verbal behavior. A 1971 Supreme Court decision, Cohen v. California, actually ratified the use of the word fuck in public, such that it would henceforth be under First Amendment protection and immune to action by law enforcement. People became unembarrassed, in the main, about such language.
Concurrently, the broad-spectrum “coming out of the closet” of the whole range of sexual and parasexual behavior had begun. According to some commentators, the animating developments were highly reliable contraception – in particular, the birth-control pill – and the ongoing secularization of American society. What had previously been considered enormously shameful – adultery; premarital sex; homosexuality; polyamory; multiple-partner sexual encounters – gained a foothold and slowly overcame the prior inhibitions and statues against it.
In these cases, personal inhibition was the primary barrier against those forms of self-indulgence. “Decent people don’t talk or behave that way,” was the sentiment…and persons who held themselves to be decent would have no truck with those who did. As regards sexual conduct, was also a degree of fear of being “found out,” especially about adultery and homosexuality. Adultery could get a husband judicially stripped of all his possessions, his right to see his children, and in some states his right to marry. Homosexuality could get the practitioner lynched.
The process here was a gradual decloaking of the previously forbidden speech and actions by disparaging inhibition about them. “We’re all adults here.” “Come on, you’ve been around.” “What are you, some kind of prude?” All in the name of “tolerance.”
There are many similar cases of disapproval and tolerance as political wedges, but an all-encompassing treatment of these things would require a multi-volume history of American life and society since World War II. Let those mentioned above stand for the rest.
The critical development is one I have not yet mentioned: the transition of these behaviors and movements from suppressed to accepted through assertive to aggressive. What for hundreds of years had been in statu quo, once it was released from the general level of inhibition, swiftly turned on us who had released it.
Today, the mere suggestion of speech and behavior codes for the young is considered obscene. High-school students routinely get away with speaking to their teachers and administrators in the vilest imaginable terms. Punishment for such disrespect is rare, even when it verges on violence. The schools themselves have been completely politicized, such that only one political viewpoint is acceptable in any one of them. To express the contrary view can get one assaulted, even mortally.
Similarly, few dare to state openly what had previously been the common conviction: that there are differences between the races, at least statistically, and that people have a perfect right to live and do business “among our own.” We went from a normal state of affairs, no different here from what prevailed – and still prevails – in other lands, to a condition of enforced mixing of the races, especially in our schools and our businesses. The consequences have been dire. They certainly haven’t been confined to the playing fields.
Our common speech has been vulgarized. To refrain from the use of words previously considered “unspeakable” now gets one labeled a bluenose: “Do you think you’re the second coming of William F. Buckley?” Please don’t think this is an exaggeration. I get hit with this sort of disparagement every fucking day.
And need I really detail the explosion of public sexual license: the celebrations of abortion, the “pride” parades, the public fornications, the in-your-face assertion – and demand not merely for tolerance but for actual approval — of one’s sexual orientation or “identity,” however bizarre?
The point here is not that I deplore these developments. I do deplore them, and I’ve said so on other occasions. The point is rather that what kept some of them “in the closet” – i.e., vulgar language and sexual license – was widespread and longstanding disapproval, which induced inhibition and privacy. The others – i.e., a preference for one’s own race and disapproval of politics among the immature – have been forced “into the closet” by the incitement of disapproval, especially through the major media, such that widespread prior convictions and preferences became “unspeakable” and in some instances criminal. Once the bottle had been uncorked, what emanated from it could no longer be restrained to any degree. It became ever more aggressive, until today it threatens to unmake ordinary interactions among persons of divergent views.
The Victorians could have told us what lay ahead. However they might speak or behave in private, when the doors were locked and the children were asleep, they always behaved properly in public. They impressed the importance of those public norms onto their children; not to do so was to be regarded as an unfit parent. Those who would not so conduct themselves were relegated to the slums and the lower orders, for no one else would have them.
Disapproval and inhibition might have limited some of the Victorians’ excesses, though it would be difficult to conclude that definitively. What it did do was more important: it stabilized the social order. It rendered public society – the streets, the commerce, and the open institutions of that time and place — safe. This, in an era when virtually everyone of adult years went about armed at all times.
And disapproval and inhibition were the keys.