The H-E-Double-L You Say

Posted: Apr 10, 2001 12:00 AM
A racial incident, natch. Every incident these days is "racial," or anyway, that dismal impression sinks in: one consequence of prolonged exposure to people who yammer on television. Five first-graders, at an elementary school in Garland, Texas, use words once generally denominated as "bad." Whoops, caught in the act! Assistant principal has all five touch the top of a bottle of liquid dish detergent with their fingers, then touch their tongues. Oooo. Yuck. Outraged parent (21st-century parents live in a state of outrage over the schools' treatment of Junior) complains to Hispanic group over inappropriate punishment. Group shrieks bloody murder, wants assistant principal dismissed or hanged, whichever comes first. School district cringes. Spokesperson is "very, very sorry it happened," offers pained assurances, "it won't happen again." Probably it won't. There's the racial angle for one thing. No school system wants a head-on collision with self-deputized "racial spokesmen" whose livelihoods depend on their ability to conjure up "racism" from whole cloth or triviality. We have to acknowledge, additionally, that the notion of "bad" language, and punishment for use of the same, has passed beyond our comprehension, culturally speaking. Listen. Listen anywhere. TV and movies seem by now to have liberated most Americans from delusions that they can't say pretty much what they want to, where they want to, when they want to, because that's what Americans on the screen do more and more of. Confirmation of this datum comes at every turn -- in restaurants, grocery stores and on street corners. I've grown accustomed, wherever and whenever, to overhearing all the unseemly expressions I learned in the First Christian Church Boy Scout troop, circa 1954. The difference between 1954 and 2001 is, learning isn't the same thing as deploying. There were once rules. For "mixed company" or "polite society," the rules mandated euphemisms: "heckfire," "manure," "confounded;" in a more sophisticated vein, "merde" (French) or "perdition," which was literary. Such deliberately sly evasions, while making their point, preserved a sense of social decorum. They could even pass on occasion for wit. Hard to believe, but at one time, men who let their language slip "in the presence of ladies" would apologize for it: "Pardon my French," or something jocular like that. What roused my interest in the tale of the assistant principal and the soap was the quaintness of it all; the recollection that -- yes -- soap was once a tool of remonstrance as well as ablution. It happened to your servant on one memorable occasion. What had I said? No idea. Whatever it was, venue and audience were ill-chosen. Daisy Polk Murchison, my paternal grandmother, swiftly marched me into the downstairs bath of the old Murchison homeplace and proceeded without further explanation to scrub my mouth out with soap. It tasted awful. And that was the point. What was dirty had to be cleansed. Language, just like blue jeans, could be grimy; and when it got that way, well, something had to be done. Now you can say, if you want -- and you'd be absolutely right -- that bad language, measured against cruelty and injustice, war and pillage and rapine, bulks small. But civilization is a delicate contrivance. You have to be careful. Off comes the skin; pretty soon, the whole potato is a mess. Easy is the descent to "Avernus," they used to say. You know -- Avernus, the hot place, hades, h-e-double-l. A word to make genteel ladies drag grandchildren off to the bathroom. Well, times do change. An assistant principal tries to enforce minimal standards; for her it's off to the ducking stool, when what she deserves is the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Honor for trying valiantly, against societal currents, to do the right thing. We just get weirder and weirder, it would seem, as do columnists, of course. But consider: That's what they pay us for.