The Journal Editorial Report | November 26, 2004 | PBS
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Briefing and Opinion
November 26, 2004

Coarsening of America

Are we living through a collapse of community standards and values or is the explosion of sex and violence in American cultural offerings simply a symptom of freedom? Correspondent Lisa Rudolph has this briefing on the subject.

culture imagesTimes have changed and, some say, so have standards of decency and good taste: how we dress, how we behave in public, what we buy, and what we're sold. On television and in the movies, Americans are fed over-the-top reality shows like FEAR FACTOR, and sexually explicit and violent shows. Even the all-American Superbowl or family entertainment like the movie NUTTY PROFESSOR are no longer necessarily G-rated. Porn pervades the internet and rap music is laced with words that used to be deleted.

The message that's being delivered is entirely unwholesome in the United States at the moment, says Herb London, a professor of humanities at New York University. "I think we've seen a dramatic coarsening of American culture over the last 30 years or so," he says. "It is so much around you that it's very difficult to escape."

Herb London

London believes that the sole unifying theme in today's network programming is promiscuity. "We live with this kind of democratic madness, everyone is permitted to express a view," he says. Less is more he argues, and more discretion would not undermine democracy. "I don't think tastefulness, modesty, recognition of other people's rights, a concern for decent behavior, and the use of appropriate language to be a constraint on democracy at all," says London. "There's a certain desire to retain what are very traditional values and, that, I think, has been lost in American life."

Richard Walter, a film professor at UCLA, suggests that this idyllic, wholesome past is an illusion and that society today is not so different from that of 30 or 40 years ago. "I don't think people ever lived LEAVE IT TO BEAVER lives," says Walter. "I think that was a romance and an idealization of that era." At that time too, people were saying that the culture was being coarsened, says Walter. "Not by Ozzie and Harriet, but by comic books -- horror comics."

Sex and violence may be a part of human nature, but does it have to be in our face? Shakespeare's no better, agrues Walter. "At the end of HAMLET, there are nine corpses onstage. Nobody wants to see the village of the happy, nice people. It's about conflict, and it's usually about bitter, ugly, violent, deadly conflict."

Richard Walter

Is the drive to produce such programming, simply a desire to push the envelope for bigger ratings and more money? "It's just not true that if you have a lot of violence, a lot of sex on the screen, you can make a lot of money," says Walter. "The biggest earners in film, among the top 100 movies of all time, are comedies, are family movies."

These days, it may be harder to tell exactly what family entertainment is -- what passes for PG-13 is often surprising. Cartoons like SOUTH PARK feature some of the fouler language on television. Even in primetime programs like FRIENDS, there are out-of-wedlock pregnancies and very adult, sexual-oriented humor.

This, suggests Walter, may be simply a reflection of the current state of the American family. "Look out at the cul-de-sac where you live, you have all of those things," says Walter. "Is FRIENDS a reflection of that? Or is that a reflection of FRIENDS? Do not the media and shows like FRIENDS offer an opportunity, in a safe place, to work out some of those struggles, for parents to discuss those issues with children?"

Jennifer Anniston

To Herb London, the culture has simply gone too far. "This is not acceptable behavior on TV. This is not acceptable behavior if you're expecting appropriate behavior from kids," he says.

Walter disagrees that current cultural offerings are inappropriate. "You should rejoice in the ugly expression that you hear because it tells you that you're living in a free society," he says. "You don't have to embrace it. In a free society you have to tolerate a lot of expression that you don't like. I say lighten up. Take a deep breath."