Thursday, April 19, 2012

Watch your language!

When our son was small, I used to read religiously all the research about violence on television and in the movies and ponder if it was going to affect him. I wanted to be one of those progressive parents who pooh-poohed the idea that images on a screen could over-rule a gentle up-bringing but I couldn't shake the thought that if images on a screen were so benign, why was advertising such a powerful billion-dollar force?

I thought back to this during a recent conversation with some acquaintances. Someone wondered why teens are so much ruder than they used to be; others jumped in to say it's not only teens: many people of all ages seem to have forgotten their manners. Everyone had her theories as to why this might be so and my attention wandered back to television.

My son is 17 now so I hear in passing some of the routine TV that some teenage boys are exposed to. Believe me, I try not to listen.

But I don't have to venture far outside what used to be my comfort zone to observe the brave new world of television.

If words truly shape the way we see the world and the way we feel -- and they do -- why are we suddenly subjected to language warnings on. . . Food Network Canada! This is food we're talking about, beautiful food that should be making us feel creative and healthy and energetic. Instead, we're warned, on more of the Food Network's programming than not, "The following program contains strong language. Viewer discretion is advised." On the Food Network!

Take a look at these titles -- a random sampling: 24 Hour Restaurant Battle; Dinner Party Wars; Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares; Chopped!; Glutton for Punishment; Cupcake Wars. These programs follow a "reality show" formula and are predictable and boring but the characteristic they all have in common is that many of them feature people who are rude and who use vulgar language. They're not people that I could imagine wanting to spend time with.

To keep things in some perspective, none of the people I’m writing about -- either in real life or on the Food Network -- come close to those people who appear with the godfathers of TV rudeness: the Jerry Springers and the Maury Poviches.

I hesitate to suggest generational stereotypes. The people getting bleeped on TV are not teenagers. The people I see in real life behaving badly are not always teenagers either.

There are no language warnings in public places -- on the buses, in the malls -- and there are no mute buttons. But I often hear discussions in public places that sound as if they should be on the Food Network complete with smartass insults and witless put-downs. There is little reticence -- Have you noticed? People will talk about anything! -- and there are lots of bad words. The question that arises – as it did so many years ago in discussions about violence: do the TV programs imitate reality or do they reflect reality?

I like to think of myself as someone who understands that language evolves. My new question is: bad words are much more commonly and openly used but are they more socially acceptable than they used to be? Are there still places where it’s reasonable to say, “Hey! Watch your language!”

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