Moral Panic

Who Gives a @$%! About Vulgarity?

Society is coarser and better.


Last fall Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made a genuinely surprising revelation. Long known for his fuhgeddaboudit dismissals of opinions he considers obviously mistaken, the New-Jersey-born-and-raised jurist often sounds more like Tony Soprano than Oliver Wendell Holmes. "The death penalty?" he once snorted. "Give me a break. It's easy."

Yet beneath that tough-guy exterior is a delicate flower who is just one more F-bomb away from fainting. "I am glad that I'm not raising kids today," Scalia told New York magazine in October. "One of the things that upsets me about modern society is the coarseness of manners. You can't go to a movie-or watch a television show for that matter-without hearing the constant use of the F-word-including, you know, ladies using it. My goodness!"

Such a sensibility is a staple of the right. In a column denouncing the "Triumph of Vulgarians," National Review's Jonah Goldberg assailed recidivist twerker Miley Cyrus and the sailor talk on the cooking show Top Chef while praising comedians such as Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld for "keeping it clean." Conservative anti-vulgarians have at least one unlikely ally: pop singer Annie Lennox, who in the 1980s helped mainstream the sort of androgyny that right-wingers then considered nothing less than a "sexual suicide." Lennox took to Facebook to denounce contemporary music videos, which she says are nothing more than "highly styled pornography." Meanwhile, Gallup finds that 72 percent of Americans think "moral values" are getting worse.

I don't know anyone who would seriously challenge the idea that America has become a far cruder society during the last 10, 20, or 30 years. There is probably more sex, violence, and salty language in the opening credits of Keeping Up With the Kardashians than there was on all of prime-time TV when Scalia joined the Supreme Court in 1986.

But really, who gives an F-word? We may well be an increasingly ill-mannered society, one that's soaking in violent video games, instantly available online porn, and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo like our mothers used to soak their hands in Palmolive liquid. But we are also a society in which youth violence, sex, and drug use are all trending down. If that means putting up with, you know, ladies cursing and other examples of unambiguously crass behavior, it seems a small price to pay.

That is not to scant the vast cultural distance we have traveled since 1986. Back then, the hypersexualized chanteuse of the moment was Madonna, who had followed up her scandalous 1984 hit "Like a Virgin" with the relatively chaste "Papa Don't Preach," a paen to unplanned pregnancy widely interpreted as an anti-abortion statement. Today we are struggling to make sense of Miley Cyrus' relentless display of skankitude, from her tongue-wagging, foam-finger-fondling dancing at MTV's Video Music Awards to her scantily clad hosting of Saturday Night Live to her unapologetically frank (if misinformed) discussion of elder sex with Today's Matt Lauer. (Cyrus told the host that people over 40 don't have sex.)

So Scalia is right that we're coarser. But he's wrong to suggest that if "you portray [bad behavior] a lot, the society's going to become that way." Notwithstanding recurrent media scares to the contrary, children-generally assumed to be the most impressionable among us-are not being compelled by the culture they consume to act up.

Violent crime arrest rates for males between the ages of 10 and 24 are less than half what they were in 1995. For females, they have declined by 40 percentage points during the same time. Between 1988 and 2010 (the latest year for which data are available), the percentage of never-married males between the ages of 15 and 19 who reported ever having had sex dropped from 60 percent to 42 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control. For females in the same age group, the rate declined from 51 percent to 43 percent. High school students are less likely to be bullied than they used to be, and they are less likely to smoke too. When it comes to drinking or smoking pot on a regular basis, the annual Monitoring the Future study shows just 6.5 percent of 12th graders using pot in the past month and 2.5 percent drinking alcohol, percentages that have been generally flat for the past dozen years.

As the father of two boys who grew up watching Hannah Montana years before Miley Cyrus moved into her current phase, I can understand Scalia's trepidation. But when you look away from what the kids today are watching and focus instead on what they're doing-or more precisely, what they're not doing-there is every reason to be optimistic.