Insensitivity explodes into a growth industry


Given that this is Halloween and all, I thought that I'd maybe write about something in honor of the holiday like "Pumpkins I Have Known and Carved" or "Great Ghosts of History" or perhaps "Zombies to Whom I've Been Married." But then I thought, nothing is really more frightening than what's going down right now in the culture.

Specifically, I'm referring to the death of taste, tact and civility and the concurrent thriving of rudeness, nastiness and vulgarity. The line separating courtesy from the unseemly is now officially gone, erased by the disappearance of even the thinnest rules of decorum in what passes for entertainment and popular culture.

And it's really sort of our own fault.

The events of last week drove home this point rather vividly. Rush Limbaugh mocks the Parkinson's disease-induced symptoms of beloved actor Michael J. Fox, and while there is condemnation, it's rather muted and hardly universal. The bad boys who make "South Park" feature a skit in which the late Steve Irwin attends a Halloween Party (for Satan, no less) and comes dressed in a costume that features a stingray barb through the heart and a splash of blood, which was of course how the naturalist actually died.

This is not about free speech. I've defended "South Park" and its enthusiastic embrace of bad taste from its 1997 premiere. It isn't about censoring anyone, not even the bombastic, blithering Limbaugh. They can do and say whatever the public will allow and/or embrace, and that's really the problem.

Gross insensitivity has gone mainstream. Not only are we not shocked by it, we briefly raise our eyebrows and shake our head and then move on. There is no longer a code of conduct that keeps the offensive, the cheap and the thoughtless from being presented in the first place.

This likewise isn't to advocate any sort of containment by fear or reprisal. It's simply become clear by what's acceptable that we no longer are the civil society we once were. And it's noteworthy that when something does get rejected at the corporate level, it's strictly about business concerns rather than honest moral principle -- such as NBC apparently rejecting an ad for the Dixie Chicks movie because it's critical of the president, or excising the crucifixion scene from a Madonna concert special over worry of a religious backlash.

The FCC only cares if somebody utters a salty word on the Puritan broadcast airwaves, not the larger picture that makes a mockery of standards by the essential evaporation of our values awareness, by the inability even to distinguish between symbolic indecency and what's truly offensive.

In this environment, we punish Tom Cruise for jumping on a couch but will more readily allow Limbaugh to demean and question the integrity of one of the more righteous humans on the planet. We're far quicker to dismiss Limbaugh's transgression by reasoning, "Yeah, well, that's just Rush" rather than rising up to hold him truly accountable. In the process, we suffer a certain blindness and deafness that allows the unacceptable to pass as a new reality.

What's most tragic about this tumble in simple consideration and diplomacy in what we see and hear is the way it tends to color everything in our lives, from driving in traffic to waiting in line at the supermarket to holding the elevator door (or not). We'd better get used to the fact common decency is falling from our radar.