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Doubling the Standard

ISSUE:  Winter 1986

In First Monday in October, the movie that anticipated appointment of the first woman to the United States Supreme Court, Walter Matthau plays a role that amiably caricatures the late William O. Douglas. The plot is built around a protracted judicial skirmish over censorship in which the fictional Justice Douglas, true to the spirit of the original, refuses to attend the screening of a pornographic film on the ground that it would be a waste of time, since, no matter how salacious it might be, he would not vote to ban it. “It is curious about censorship, how one reacts,” Matthau observed. He found himself in wholehearted agreement when the script had the new female justice contending that pornography is inherently demeaning to womankind and, at the extreme, an incitement to violence. “Then I would hear myself putting the opposite view and believe everything I was saying,” Matthau continued. “I suppose my emotional reaction is that there should be total censorship but my intelligent reaction is that there should be hardly any.”

In the course of more than 25 years as vice-chairman of the advisory council of the American Civil Liberties Union, I have had occasion to consider the issue in its most pointed application, and I find that I still share Matthau’s ambivalence. So, to my knowledge, did my friend Bill Douglas, although his absolutist reading of the First Amendment led him, on balance, to come down against any abridgment of free speech. But I doubt that he would have avoided such a screening—certainly not if, in addition to being lascivious, the film also was reputed to be funny. He once explained to me, with considerable glee, why his venerable brethren had so much difficulty agreeing on a definition of pornography any more precise than Justice Potter Stewart’s insistence that he knew it when he saw it. “The legal test,” he said, “is whether the material arouses a prurient response in the beholder. The older we get the freer the speech.”

In First Monday the discomfiture of the male justices at viewing a film aptly titled The Naked Nymphomaniac in the presence of a woman effectively makes the point that the older generation of Americans has been conditioned by a double standard in all matters sexual. The estimable Matthau, who surely would rate a ten on anyone’s scale of sophistication, confessed, “I still wince at four-letter words, although I am not as bad as I used to be. It was years before I could swear at all in front of a woman.” In another film that required the use of one of the most common expletives Matthau resorted to “fug,” the euphemism employed by Norman Mailer when, in a time of restrictive publishing conventions, he found the Anglo-Saxon term for copulation essential to a fair rendering of the speech of World War II infantrymen.

Such reticence must seem downright quaint to a generation conditioned by the unrestrained use of obscenity, scatology, and blasphemy in much of the meda.(The dwindling exceptions are what used to be called family newspapers, and television, which so far has punctuated its drama with physical violence instead of profanity, and substituted for frontal nudity what the trade calls the T & A [for tits and asses] jiggle.) I suspect that it is only among my aging contemporaries that one can find those who still share Matthau’s tendency to wince when women are not only exposed to, but often casually employ, terms that were once banned in mixed company, even that available for purchase in a whorehouse.

I am not sure that we are any worse off morally as a result of the lifting of the bans; if the result is the coarsening of social intercourse it may have facilitated the other kind. At least it has brought an end to what could only be seen as arrant hypocrisy, since not even the most sheltered female was unacquainted with the organs, sexual practices, and bodily functions whose mention was presumed to be offensive. If the affectation was more or less harmless in itself, the linguistic double standard became a symbol of the conventions that barred women from free access to the male-dominated world of affairs, and in the interest of simple justice it had to go.

There has been, however, considerable damage to the working vocabulary. As they passed into general usage, the terms classified as obscene lost the special meaning they enjoyed when they were confined to impolite society. What they literally connoted could always be conveyed by artists talented enough to be taken seriously, and their audience was never left in doubt that their subjects responded to relevant bodily demands, including those considered aberrant. It was, in fact, one of the ironies of the prudish Victorian era that language that had once been in the common vernacular lost its prurient characteristics when it was driven underground. Webster’s Third International defines obscenity as “disgusting to the senses, usually because of some filthy, grotesque or unnatural quality.” As it was employed in such male retreats as the pool hall, the military barracks, the locker room, and the smoking compartment, the emphasis was on the grotesque, usually denatured to the merely absurd—which, of course, made it an element of comedy.

Males other than those beset by arrested puberty usually avoided the peepshow pornography available under the counter in cigar stores, smoke-filled sample rooms at sales conventions, and the private art collections of eccentric millionaires. When I reflect on the vast amount of off-color verbiage I was subjected to over the years, I find that virtually none of it was capable of arousing anything approximating an erotic impulse. A minor proportion was abusive, some was intended to express disgust or dismay, but most was intended to be funny, and often was.

Growing up in upcountry South Carolina, I was exposed to two seminal strains of American speech: the near-Elizabethan discourse of the mountain people and the street talk of blacks. Being male, I was treated to the full, earthy flavor of both, and when I became a professional wordmonger I continued to mine these rich depositories of humor and folklore. In both cases the tradition was oral and anecdotal; it could be transplanted, and was when blacks migrated in great numbers to the inner cities of the North and West, but it could not be removed from the context of the underclass societies that produced it. Both hillbilly and black English are dialects, readily intelligible to an initiate even though he might himself be conditioned by standard speech; the peculiarities of grammar and accent adapted them to the special use to which they were commonly put—that is, to slyly ridicule those who considered propriety a mark of superiority.

The offending words had their roots in the nation’s colonial heritage and when, like Norman Mailer, I served in the infantry in World War II I found that they are inseparable from it. I had been conditioned by the plummy English “U” accent and the elegant style of British authors to think of the mother tongue as being somewhat more refined on the other side of the water. But as I served alongside British and Commonwealth troops in the United Kingdom and on the continent I began to realize that the salty jargon of American professional soldiers went straight back to Agincourt. The usual deployment of time-dishonored obscenities by our hard-nosed noncoms was pedestrian compared to that of the Tommies. A song lofted in the pubs by the RAF began “Flying forty fucking thousand feet above the fucking Firth of Forth. . . .” and went on from there. A fellow officer who shared my etymological interests reported with awe the all-purpose response he elicited when he asked a Scots corporal what seemed to be wrong with his stalled jeep: “The fucking fucker’s fucked. Fuck it.” And I cherish the memory of a contrite call from an operations officer at Field Marshall Montgomery’s headquarters to explain that he had lost priority and couldn’t deliver the RAF air support he had promised: “I seem to have left my cock in my other trousers.”

Even when employed as epithets these terms were not only asexual but impersonal—hardly to be taken literally since they were regularly applied to inanimate objects, institutions, and processes as well as people. In some cases they had doubtless started out as an ultimate insult, but the frequency and range of their application denatured them, rendering them so absurd the recipient usually felt free to accept them with a smile. This was so even with the appellation derived by blacks from the most abhorrent offense in any society. Since no one would suspect the ordinary mother’s son of incest, the term could be one of affection—at least when used among intimates.

Some of the four-letter words, particularly those relating to the sexual parts, were archaic, or would have become so had they not been preserved in this sub rosa repository. Throwbacks to a vanished age stud the hillbilly vernacular. For more than 40 years the Arkansas folklorist, Vance Randolph, resisted bowdlerization by squeamish university press editors who insisted on such substitutions as penis for tallywhacker. The result was that he accumulated a trunkfull of material excised from his published works. By 1976 the standards of propriety on the campuses had declined sufficiently to permit the University of Illinois Press to bring forth a collection Randolph triumphantly titled Pissing In the Snow. “It is impossible to present a well-rounded picture of Ozark folklore without some obscene items,” he wrote in the introduction. “Such stories are not aphrodisiac, or intended to invoke antisocial sex activity. They merely invoke laughter.”

In a limited sense, then, the new standards, or nonstandards, have had a liberating effect on literature and art. But as they gained currency in mixed company the once proscribed words and images have often tended to resume their prurient connotation, thereby altering the benign purpose Randolph ascribed to his usage. This clearly has been a corrupting influence on the lesser breed of novelists and dramatists, encouraging them to sprinkle their work with titillating, usually extraneous bits of pornography. The practice is now so universal the critics have had to devise such gradations as hard (for hard-core) and soft porn to characterize the standard fare. But so far, unfortunately, they have found no way to effectively distinguish between the permissibly erotic, which exalts the human body and its unique sexual capacities, and the essentially beastial, which has to be seen as antisocial even by those of us who tolerate it in the name of free speech.


While the prevailing standards of taste were being repealed in one area of speech, new restrictions were being imposed in another—this, too, in the name of liberation. The second semantic campaign gained force as an auxiliary to the civil rights movement, a matter of eradicating from general usage language considered offensive to blacks, but in time it spread to all other identifiable groups that considered their members subject to discrimination.

In the case of the most conspicuous victims—blacks, Hispanics, Indians, and Orientals—overt discrimination was easy to identify. More subtle manifestations of prejudice were subject to tests employed by Jews and Catholic ethnics in the years when they were denied the marks of status reserved for white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. But the usual proscription against adverse references to race, religion, accent, or pigmentation no longer was adequate when women, homosexuals, and the aged began to be counted among those in need of protection against obloquy, for these were to be found in all groups and classes.

Elementary good manners have always forbidden the use of terminology considered offensive by those to whom it referred. When the concept of white supremacy was politicized in the post-Reconstruction South, “nigger” became an epithet generally avoided by proper whites, at least in the presence of blacks. In my early newspaper years Negro, with an exaggerated emphasis on the “e,” became the oral standard, and it was considered a mark of progress when publishers agreed to capitalize it in print. Colored was certified as a permissible alternative since it was included in the title of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But darky was not acceptable, nor was black, although it would ultimately become the new standard. These sometimes contradictory changes in usage reflected the rising status of the minority, and with it came a new tendency to counter white imputations of inferiority by asserting what amounted to racial superiority. This kind of contrived consciousness-raising produced “black is beautiful” as a leading slogan of the movement.

Legal segregation, the heritage from the age of slavery that made blacks unique among American minorities, came to an end under the public policy established by the Supreme Court in its 1954 decision desegregating the public schools. The result has been an effective dismantling of the institutional barriers that once separated the races. This has served to recast the argument over the course that should be followed in eliminating the inferior status that still afflicts a substantial proportion of blacks. Racism, manifest as enforced segregation, obviously was the root cause, but some black leaders now contend that the deplorable condition of at least a third of the colored population must be recognized as an issue of class since it is not essentially different from that of Hispanics and poor whites. The veteran civil rights activist, Bayard Rustin, puts it this way: “Since the Civil Warblacks have had what I called a rehearsed response—a correct one. We thought in terms of color. Today the problem is class. . . . In other words, the future advancement of blacks and other poor in this country has very little to do with the color of their skin.” Although the more radical blacks generally reject the thesis, and the mainline leaders endorse it with reservations, it has obvious tactical implications. The doctrine of white supremacy has lost respectability, South as well as North, and now a substantial majority—including the conservative politicians who came to power with Ronald Reagan—proclaim themselves fully committed to an open society. To such as these, “racist” is an epithet as offensive as “nigger” is to those who usually level the charge. Most black leaders prudently substitute “insensitive” when they complain of whites who do not actively support their cause.


Insensitivity necessarily has been the principal complaint brought against their putative oppressors by the feminists. Even one who clearly deserves the epithet “male chauvinist” could not necessarily be charged with hatred or contempt for the opposite sex; the most grievous offenses often are held to stem from exaltation of motherhood and connubial love to an extent that stifles the object of the adulation. Nor is it easy to impress a man with a blanket charge of unequal treatment when he is willing to endow his spouse with at least half his worldly goods. What a frustrated housewife demands in the name of equality—the right to go forth in the great world and earn a living—may seem an onerous burden to a weary male breadwinner. The fact is that the vocabulary of protest borrowed from the civil rights movement simply doesn’t fit the kind of discrimination suffered by women and homosexuals. There are, certainly, sound arguments to refute most of the conventional reservations as to the changing role of women and the emergence of gays from the closet. Also there is no doubt that many males are still unwilling to give them a fair hearing. But I doubt that prejudices deeply rooted in tradition and experience that go back to the dawn of mankind are going to yield to an effort to emasculate the language in which these matters are discussed.

The effort to degenderize the working vocabulary has produced results many of those who sympathize with the feminist cause consider absurd to the point of counterproductivity. I find it difficult to believe that the incidence of male chauvinism is going to be affected by banning inferentially bisexual terms such as mankind, as used above, or by substituting chairperson or the truncated chair for chairman. On the other hand, the feminist coinage Ms. strikes me as a logical addition to the vocabulary, providing a useful courtesy title for a female who sees no point in denoting her marital status. Abandonment of the courtesy title altogether, however, as some newspapers have done under feminist pressure, only contributes to the imprecision that blights much journalistic writing. Since Mr. is no longer used for men, it is contended that it is discriminatory to append Miss or Mrs. or even Ms. to a second reference to a woman. Those of us conditioned by the older convention never thought of it as in any sense derogatory; withholding it in one instance and applying it in the other simply provides a convenient means of automatically identifying males and females, a distinction that becomes peculiarly pertinent in dealing with the issues and practices of primary concern to feminists.

The generalized protest against singling out women for identification by sex can carry the charge of insensitivity to the rim of the absurd. The “darts and laurels” department of the Columbia Journalism Review, for example, cited Don Cook of the Los Angeles Times for a “textbook example of sexist cliché” when he filed a story on Gro Garlem Brundtland, Norway’s prime minister, with this lead: “Can a feisty, forty-one-year-old mother of four teen-agers who has a master’s degree from Harvard restore the faded leadership image of Norway’s Labor Party. . .?” Cook indignantly replied that the prime minister’s sex, maternal status, and educational background were what made her unique and were obviously of primary interest to his readers. He challenged his detractor by asserting that “if he (or she, God forbid) had written a lead without making it clear that the story was about a woman, and without attempting to convey something of the background and personality of the subject and situation, I would award the writer a dart for incompetence and order the lead rewritten.” The Review editor, identifying herself as the mother of two, limited her rejoinder to an italicized: There you go again.

Substitution of insensitive for sexist, or racist, or more recently ageist, presumably imputes ignorance rather than malice, and therefore avoids, or at least reduces, the pejorative moral connotation. But in practice there is usually no doubt that those who use it suspect the darkest motivation. If insensitivity is still a barrier to reform, coherent discussion of the issue is inhibited by the hypersensitivity of many who have been abraded by the effort to obtain equal footing with the white males who heretofore have dominated American society. Among these are members of the more or less integrated black middle class who believe they are encountering what Jaqueline Trescott of the Washington Post identifies as the New Insensitivity.

“Social racism—the veiled insult, contempt masquerading as a joke, the direct slur—seemed to have gone underground in the polite, liberal company of the racially progressive 1960s and early 1970s,” she wrote. Now she finds offensive talk commonplace in the wake of the conservative political surge that brought Ronald Reagan to the White House, “coming this time from whites in the black professionals’ peer group, as distinct from unreconstructed white bigots.”

There is bound to be some increase in racial tension in the face of the Reagan administration’s determination to undo the affirmative action programs that were great achievements of the civil rights movement. It is not possible for a neoconservative to condemn the purported shiftlessness and depravity of the welfare-dependent underclass without having some of the opprobrium rub off on blacks who share the values and life style of the white majority. But some of Ms. Trescott’s examples seem to reverse the old stereotypes. She cites an impeccably dressed black airline vice-president who was deeply offended when a white woman found him sitting in a fashionable Washington shoe store and inquired, “Do you work in this area or the next?”

Charles King, a professional counselor on interracial relations, took this as an inevitable cultural misunderstanding. “That white person may have been saying, “I know you are able to take care of me. I trust you,” but the black person took it as an insult,” he said. “Blacks are paranoid because of past experience, and whites don’t have any insight into that paranoia.” I find this a singularly unpersuasive diagnosis. Since most shoe salesmen of my acquaintance are likely to be more impeccably dressed than most airline executives, the mistaken identity was not only understandable but would seem to reflect the white customer’s cheerful acceptance of racial progress—for until a few years ago there was no such thing as a black clerk in a fashionable Washington shoe store. Another ancient stereotype seemed to be reversed in the case of three black professional women who were told by an airline stewardess that they would not need the reboarding passes being handed out at a temporary stop. They resented her explanation that “you people won’t need them—I’ll remember you.” That might well have been taken as an indication that to the stewardess all whites look alike.


The sad truth is that the commingling of whites and blacks on a more or less equal footing—and of men and women in domains previously reserved for men—is so recent and still so limited that a certain amount of social tension and attendant misunderstanding is inescapable. On the interracial side, the strain is generally less in the South where, despite the barriers of segregation, the two races shared a common history and a common vocabulary. There it was not unusual for a white to gain at least partial acceptance in circles where even the most sophisticated blacks like to relapse into the rich earthiness of street talk. As an ultimate mark of trust he could even be allowed to utter the dread term “nigger” with that blend of ridicule and affection blacks impart to it when they use it among themselves.

There is, then, reason to hope that the inhibitions and distortions imposed upon the language by the liberation movements are transitory. “I live in hope that what I call the awkward generation, the one between out-and-out-racism and race-free, will straighten this out,” says Eleanor Holmes Norton, the distinguished black attorney. But she adds, “Sometimes we aren’t very adept at it.”

The most flagrant ineptitude is often displayed by members of the Establishment who presume to be acting in the interests of the oppressed minority. In the ultimate citadel of uninhibited self-expression, San Francisco, the director of children’s services at the Public Library removed the saga of the flying governess, Mary Poppins, from general circulation. “The book treats minorities in ways that are derogatory. It’s written from an old English point of view of “the white man’s burden,”” she said. “That is naturally offensive to minorities and others as well.” The particulars cited included references to a “red Indian with a tomahawk,” a “Negro lady,” a Mandarin with a sword, and an Eskimo with a spear. The San Francisco Examiner conceded that “there is some stereotype in this, though assuredly Indians did carry tomahawks,” a point that carried special authority since the editor who made it, Tom Dearmore, is an emancipated Ozark hillbilly who takes special pride in the Cherokee strain in his ancestry.

The innocuous children’s book, in fact, had been bowdlerized before it ever arrived in San Francisco. When it was first published in London some 50 years ago, the author, P.L. Travers, included a passage in which a black child is referred to as a “pickaninny” and a black woman offers the visiting British nanny a slice of watermelon after greeting her with, “I been’ specting you.” At the behest of Miss Travers’ American publisher, the pickaninny and watermelon disappeared, and the greeting was changed to, “We’ve been anticipating your visit, Mary Poppins.” It is, I think, just as well that this version is being kept away from credulous children.

It occurred to me long ago that the English-speaking world suffered a considerable literary loss when the publishing conventions of his time required Mark Twain to sanitize the language of the blacks and poor whites he knew in his days on the Mississippi. The standard applied in the case of Mary Poppins would finish off what Twain managed to salvage of the speech picked up by his true ear. Consider what the editor who touched up Poppins might do with black Jim’s greeting to Huck Finn when he believes his friend has been drowned and has returned as a ghost: “Don’t hurt me. . . don’t! I haint ever done no harm to a ghos’. I alwuz liked dead people, en done all I could for ‘em. You go get in de river ag’in, whah you b’longs, en doan do nuffin to ol’ Jim, ‘at wuz alwuz yo’ fren’. . . .” Any conceivable pangs present-day blacks might suffer from this reminder of the shameful past are surely offset by the moral of the tale. Jim was a runaway slave, and Huck was in the process of “stealing a poor woman’s nigger,” a mortal sin by the lights of the church he attended: “The more I studied about this, the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and lowdown and ornery I got to feeling.” But in the end he concluded, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and risked his own white hide to help his black friend out of bondage. This, however, apparently counted for nothing in a former stop in the underground railway, Warrington, Pennsylvania, where the Central Bucks County Junior High School has agreed to take The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn off the required reading list.


This kind of sensitivity is understandable, and perhaps inescapable in a time when blacks are only beginning to move freely in a society in which most traditionally have been either oppressed or ignored, but it also can be a diversion from the urgent business at hand. Bayard Rustin is correct, I think, in his contention that the besetting problem is no longer one of applied race prejudice, but is rooted in the fact that in an age of rapid technological change and shifting demography we have been incapable of dealing effectively with the self-perpetuating poverty that entraps a disproportionate share of the minority population. President Reagan’s reaction has been to insist that the central government is the cause of the problem and has no proper role in its solution. This may or may not reflect an insensitivity to the inherited disabilities of the black underclass; the important consideration is that his administration is committed to the kind of laissez faire capitalism and outmoded federalism that will, at best, freeze the present class disparities in place, and at worst usher in a new era of destructive racial tension.

Under these circumstances there is considerable irony in the complaint by three-fourths of the staff attorneys in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department who signed a letter of protest against what they deemed to be racial slurs contained in a memorandum by a new Reagan appointee. The section chief agreed that there was some impropriety and announced that he had discussed this “regrettable side effect” with his deputy: “He has advised me that he will in the future express his views with a greater degree of sensitivity so as to avoid the recurrence of similar misperceptions.” The effect of this was to foster a far more damaging misperception, one which obscures the evident determination of the Reagan administration to curtail the crucial role the Justice Department has played in enforcing anti-discrimination policies mandated by the courts and by acts of Congress.

The document that outraged 121 career government lawyers recommended abandoning a Yonkers school discrimination case on the ground that there was no reason to charge that a disproportionate number of minority students had been improperly classified as mentally disturbed, since “blacks, because of their family, cultural and economic background are more destructive in the classroom on the average.” This is a demonstrable fact so far as underclass blacks are concerned, and it remains so even though it may have been used in this case, as it has been in others, as an indefensible means of separating minority children from their white classmates. The implied racial slur seems to me the least of the objections that could be brought against the memorandum and the line of reasoning it reflects.

”. . . it is impossible to talk honestly about the role of race in American life without offending both whites and blacks,” Charles Silberman wrote in Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice. “The truth is too terrible on all sides; and we are all too accustomed to the soothing euphemisms and inflammatory rhetoric with which the subject is cloaked.” The outraged sensibilities peculiar to the race issue have been with us since the rise of the abolitionists, and they are bound to be accentuated by President Reagan’s call for a return to the old states-rights federalism he chooses to call new.

The existence of what, if left untended, could become a permanent black underclass is a reminder of our failure to live up to our professed ideals and carries with it an inescapable moral connotation. But it also poses a profound practical challenge, for the epidemic of violent crime now spreading beyond the black ghettos is rapidly destroying the domestic tranquillity essential to a self-governing society. Asked if we again face the kind of mass eruptions he had to deal with during the Long Hot Summers, former Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York replied: “What you’re seeing now are riots in slow motion. Small armies of hustlers are roaming the streets; ages 13 to 28, mostly men, mostly non-white, functionally illiterate, disconnected from everything anybody understands as being American life.” These are the matters we now have to talk about—even though there may be no inoffensive way of doing so.


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