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A plea for a return to civility in American life

Photo: Unsplash/Fancycrave
Photo: Unsplash/Fancycrave | Photo: Unsplash/Fancycrave

While driving my kids home from an appointment the other day, children who are in the fourth grade and just really embracing the miracle of reading, I pulled behind a car at a red light.  There, staring right at us, was a window sticker with these words: 

“Baby up in this b - - - -.  I have no idea what the slogan meant, but cringed that my son or daughter’s next question, would be, “Daddy, what is a b - - - -?”

When a family in a small SUV pulled up beside that car, I saw their window sticker, a message which normally I would agree with other than the implied profanity it carried: “An F-bomb gun family.”

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From stickers like these, to explicitly sexual slogans on T-shirts worn by teens in the mall, to profanity in otherwise innocuous television shows, one must wonder what has happened to civility and propriety in American life.  The major networks got together in the 1970s to create “The Family Hour” where all programs airing between 8:00 and 9:00 pm were suitable for the entire family.  Cable might have been the ruin of that plan, but at least they tried.  

Now, in 2019, children and other tender hearts are likely to be faced with everything from profanity, to double entendre terms for sex acts, to soft pornographic images, simply from the commercials which appear, even during family-friendly programs.  An ad for an adult hygiene wipe even promises to make one young man fresh while he goes to visit his intended’s parents for the first time.

Slang has also run amuck.  I recently have observed our local television news casters use phrases such as “Flipped him off” to describe the cause of road rage, and “Pinched her butt” in a story regarding office harassment.  One must wonder if Webster did not include the appropriate terms for such actions or body parts in journalism school dictionaries.

So, when did this slide into degradation began in American daily life?  Was it two years ago when the size of a candidate’s body part was discussed in a Republican presidential candidate debate?   Or when one of those same candidates was secretly recorded using vulgar terms regarding the female anatomy?   Or was it decades earlier when newscasters found it incumbent to use even correct terms for President Clinton’s extra marital dalliances?

Verbal incivilities are just the beginning. 

In almost any place where people gather, we are confronted with all manner of dress (or undress).  Tattoos with profanity, skulls and devils, and any manner of frightful images show from under halter tops, torn t-shirts and other attire not even considered appropriate for swimming a few generations ago.  

A drive-through coffee kiosk across from the building where I sometimes take my children to a medical appointment is called “Babes and Brew” and features female baristas leaning out of the window wearing bikini tops — and less during summer months.  An inquiry to a police officer friend provided me with the startling information that as long as there is the barest scintilla of coverage all is well in the eyes of the law.

Language, clothing, and now, finally, traffic. 

When did stop signs in neighborhoods become only a faint suggestion that something “might” be coming from the other direction so you had better at least take a glance before powering through?   A large portion of my city’s budget could be met by summon’s revenue if the police sat for 30 days watching a four-way stop intersection in my neighborhood.  

When did we as a society decide that ambulances and fire trucks had no more right-of-way than a hurried executive late for his morning Starbucks latte?   Cell phones, texting, pot inhaling (here in Colorado) and other means of distracted driving, while perhaps the greatest threats to safety on the road, are only the beginning.  

Perhaps most infuriating are the hit-and-run drivers, who now speed away from the scene before the victims can even begin to dial 911.  The same happened to a colleague and her mother only this past weekend.

My generation, all before it, and several after it, were taught in middle school civics class that one person’s rights stop where another’s rights begin.  The common example we all heard was that the right to free speech does not mean one can yell “fire!” in a crowded theatre.  But don’t mention others’ rights to those maneuvering their carts through Costco samples lane on a Saturday afternoon.  Likewise, don’t try to convince a driver who is so enthralled with his brand new music album that he wants all the world to enjoy it with him through open windows, profanity-laced or not.  And definitely don’t tell legislators who write decency laws here in Colorado — they are in the drive-though lane getting coffee anyway.

In 1939, American movie goers gasped when Rhett Buttler used a four-letter word during a discourse with Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind.”   Now, that outburst would seem as welcome as a robin chirping in its nest in comparison to other encroachments on young minds.  

While not advocating a return to hoop skirts and twin beds for sitcom married couples, society must return to some form of civility and propriety, of considering the rights of others equal to our own.  It might end in the media or in the halls of government, but it starts in the home.  Until we parents teach our children - by word and by example - that swearing in public is not okay, that traffic rules must be observed, and that most body parts are meant to be concealed, they will continue to act out more and more as they grow older.  I will if you will.  Actually, I will regardless, but won’t you join me?  Our kids will one day thank us for it.

Joel D. Vaughan is the chief of staff for Focus on the Family and lives in Colorado with his wife and two young children.

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