You may have concluded, as I have, that modern American social behavior and conversation — particularly political conversation — have become coarser as the years have passed, the world has gotten smaller, and its peoples closer. Gallantry, chivalry, politeness, manners, tolerance, and restraint have all lost ground. Bitterness, bad temper, heedlessness, intolerance, and indulgence have gained. Gracelessness is ascendant.
Even facing an issue so innocent and bearable as a traffic management plan for the Blinker intersection, some of us will miss the social signals suggesting that modulated debate and neighborly disagreement is in order and lacerating personal criticism is out of bounds.
But Islanders often miss these signals. They prefer to adjudicate the situation, naming defendants, adducing facts not established, conferring guilt, and pronouncing sentence. We Vineyarders demonstrate our wholehearted gracelessness as often as we do our unmatched generosity.
Naturally, one could argue the other side of this question of gracelessness. One could argue that politeness and good manners are like euphemisms, veiling ugly ideas and even truths. Better to be up front, this view holds. A-Rod has sex with young women brought to the ballpark by their mother; oh, it’s just a joke; Obama is a socialist who hates Jews, or else why would he have listened to that preacher for 20 years; Dubya was Hitler in a 10-gallon hat; immigrants are stealing American jobs and money, and besides they are unhygienic in their living arrangements; she’s a slut; he might as well be gay. If these were all truths, or even half-truths, why would we be restrained in their expression? If you are a cable or radio talk show host, you wouldn’t be.
In fact, there is a dictionary for practitioners of this sort of politically colored expression: Hatchet Jobs and Hardball, the Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang, edited by Grant Barrett, and introduced by (you could have guessed) James Carville and Mary Matalin. One of the entries, “feminazi, n. a committed feminist or strong-willed woman – usu. derogatory,” is attributed to Rush Limbaugh, the radio talk show guy who apologized sincerely, he said, this week as advertisers fled his show. No one believed the apology, of course.
You’ve probably heard some of the expressions Mr. Barrett documents. You may not have heard “piebiter n. a greedy person or animal; one receiving political patronage,” a term first used during the Civil War, when political blood ran high.
It is useful to distinguish between tough, even wounding, perhaps even scurrilous, political language and the expressions we use among ourselves, in real life. American political discourse has rarely been conducted on an elevated plane, descending as it has from the exalted — Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, et al — to the mundane — Patrick, McConnell, Alexander — to the infernal — Sharpton, Wallace, Beck, Maher, et al. We, or at least some of us, will succumb even to the rants of the scurrilous and the benighted. But, we ought to expect more of our everyday selves. And our global neighbors ought to also.
So, I was struck at the arrival — unbidden, I promise — of Uglier than a Monkey’s Armpit, Untranslatable Insults, Put-Downs, and Curses from Around the World, by Stephen Dodson and Dr. Robert Vanderplank. It’s a guide to speaking discourteously in 26 languages, a bible for those aspiring to gracelessness. If you meet a Persian you’d like to damn, “aatesh be jaanat biyoftad” will get the job done. It means, “may your soul catch fire.” Or in France, you can do as the French do, saying “il a un poil dans la main.” As the authors explain, “This enigmatic idiom means ‘he has a hair in his hand,’ a lovely, ridiculous image. The closest English is probably ‘lazy to the bone,’ and this tends to be delivered behind the culprit’s back.’”
Vanderplank’s introduction to his dismaying catalogue of gracelessness around the globe goes a step further than one might have guessed, proposing that the nastiness that language provides for is revealingly characteristic of its speakers, something we might want to watch out for.
“For me,” he writes, “insults and curses are the ‘dark’ side of manners and customs and all the more interesting for that, as they may inform us about what lies beneath the social codes, what verbal games men and women play with each other. Listening out for insults and curses may provide us with as many insights into the local culture as observing local manners and customs. How often have we gained a lasting impression of a village, town or country not by acts of kindness or courtesy but by witnessing or being subjected to rudeness and boorish behavior?”
One certainly wants to imprint on one’s friends, neighbors, and visitors a lasting impression. But we have to hope that Vanderplank’s peculiar fascination with what he calls the “dark” side is not infectious, because even here, where all the men and women are good looking, the children above average, and the prosecuted innocent, good nature fails us now and again, and our lapses show. One trusts that most of our acquaintances look for and find something other than our “rudeness and boorishness” to take away with them.