Society is Coarser—but Better

Yes, pop culture is crude, but who gives an F-word? By virtually every measure, we’re a safer, nicer, kinder country.

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Mark Davis / Getty Images for Clear Channel

Miley Cyrus performs onstage during the iHeart Radio Music Festival Village on September 21, 2013 in Las Vegas.

“I am glad that I’m not raising kids today,” Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia recently told New York magazine. Though known for Torquemada-like inquisitions of lawyers during oral arguments and brutally lapidary prose in his written opinions, the 77-year-old jurist practically gets the vapors when engaging today’s popular culture. “One of the things that upsets me about modern society is the coarseness of manners. You can’t go to a movie—or watch a television show for that matter—without hearing the constant use of the F-word—including, you know, ladies using it…. My goodness!”

(MORE: Justice Antonin Scalia Thinks He Has Gay Friends)

Scalia has at least one unlikely high-profile ally: Pop singer Annie Lennox, who took to Facebook to denounce contemporary music videos, which she says are nothing more than “highly styled pornography.” And for what’s it worth, Gallup finds that 72 percent of Americans are convinced that “moral values” are getting worse.

I don’t know anyone who would seriously challenge the idea that America has become a far cruder society over the last 10, 20, or 30 years. There’s probably more sex, violence, and salty language in the opening credits of Keeping Up with the Kardashians than there was on all of prime-time TV when Scalia joined the Supreme Court in 1986.

But really, who gives an…F-word? We may well be an increasingly ill-mannered society, one that’s soaking in violent video games, instantly available online porn, and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo like our mothers used to soak in Palmolive liquid. But we’re also one in which youth violence, sex, and drug use are all trending down. If that means putting up with, you know, ladies cursing and other examples of unambiguously crass behavior, it seems a terrifically small price to pay.

Which isn’t to scant the vast cultural distance we’ve traveled since 1986. Back then, the hypersexualized chanteuse of the moment was Madonna, who had followed up 1984’s scandalous hit “Like a Virgin” with the relatively chaste “Papa Don’t Preach,” a paen to unplanned pregnancy widely interpreted as an anti-abortion statement. Today, we’re struggling to make sense of Miley Cyrus’s relentless display of skankitude, from her tongue-wagging, foam-finger-fondling twerking at MTV’s Video Music Awards to her scantily clad hosting of Saturday Night Live to her unapologetically frank (if misinformed) discussion of elder sex with Today’s Matt Lauer.

So Scalia is right that we’re coarser, but he’s wrong to suggest that if  “you portray [bad behavior] a lot, the society’s going to become that way.” Despite recurrent and unbelievable media scares to the contrary, children – whom we assume to be the most impressionable among us – aren’t acting up as a result of the culture they consume.

Violent crime arrest rates for males between the ages of 10 and 24 are less than half of what they were in 1995 (for females, they’ve declined by 40 percentage points over the same time). Between 1988 and 2010 (the latest year for which data are available), the percentage of never-married males between the ages of 15 and 19 who reported ever having had sex dropped from 60 percent to 42 percent. For females in the same age group, the rate declined from 51 percent to 43 percent. High schoolers are less likely to be bullied than they used to be, and they’re less likely to smoke too. When it comes to drinking or smoking pot on a regular basis, the trends are small to begin with and generally flat over the past dozen years.

Justice Scalia – and many others, I’m sure – are glad that their child-raising days are behind them. As the father of two boys who grew up watching Hannah Montana years before Miley Cyrus transformed into her current stage of life, I can understand the trepidation. But my goodness! When you look away from what the kids today are consuming and focus instead on what they are doing – or, more precisely, what they are not doing – there’s every reason to be optimistic about their future. And the larger society’s too.

40 comments
AustinLeeOlinger
AustinLeeOlinger

It was mentioned right off the bat how the use of curse words in today's society by many people is looked upon as 'no big deal', yet, there are people out there that get offended by the misuse/overuse of curse words and even worse, young children are soaking them all in and are more apt to grow up and have the same 'no big deal' perspective on cursing. When it was mentioned that Scalia was wrong for suggesting that bad behavior will in return influence bad behavior on society, I agree with Scalia that bad behavior it is harmful to society. Bad behavior if seen everywhere will make a person think that it's OK to be crude and offensive to others. Again, if kids were to see bad/crude behavior as a young person their bad/crude behavior could grow with them.

Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

I hope that Scalia's child fathering days are over 

nicmart
nicmart

Gillespie is not a famously consistent thinker. Out of the other side of his keyboard he decries America's breathtaking incarceration rate that suppresses the crime rate. You don't have to arrest them if they are already in government hands.

The annoying thing about Gillespie's piece is that it undermines the libertarian arguments that one would hope an editor of Reason would be making.

LogosApologia
LogosApologia

Nick Gillespie is obviously not thinking clearly. An increased acceptance of immorality reveals we are NOT a "safer, nicer, kinder country" but a shallow easily entertained herd of idiots. The trashy crap the author extols has nothing to do with the crime rate. Lower crime statistics since the 1990s reflect 1)Increased incarceration, including longer sentences, more criminals are off the streets. 2) Improved law enforcement strategies via computer analysis and innovative technology. 3) The crack cocaine epidemic that soared from 1984 to 1990 has begun to wane. 4) We're getting older; the fastest-growing segment of the US population are past the age of 50.

RosaHines12
RosaHines12

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FloydmoistBleumonge
FloydmoistBleumonge

Mike Judge's movie, "Idiocracy" was not a comedy. It was a prophetic documentary. Watch the movie and then look around you. Turn on the BoobTube(tm) and  flip around the  channels. You'll swear you're still watching the movie. If you're feeling really adventurous go take a drive to your local WalTard. All the input on the way there will not compare to walking into the doors of that place. It's Mike Judges world of characters come alive. Hell, my neighbors are enough to entertain me with revulsion for decades.

lordofthefly
lordofthefly

Mr. Gillespie,  so we're supposed to be happy our kids are glued to porn and violent video games, and that Miley Cyrus is now a heroine as she rides her wrecking ball? I'm younger than Scalia, but I take his point. As you write, you are most likely considering kids in his neighborhood as you breathe a sigh of relief. Maybe you could visit some of those places where 15-year-old unwed moms hang out with their jobless boyfriends. There is a growing underclass in this country. So yeah, I guess I somewhat agree with you - if the "F" words come from young men who take their fathering seriously and aren't considering prison as a career option.Our society suffers not only from a lack of parenting, but from a lack of parents.

George_Babbitt
George_Babbitt

“Papa Don’t Preach" would probably be called out for attacking women today and " aren’t acting up as a result of the culture they consume." because many of them are being prevented from actually consuming this 'culture'.

JeffreyPtr
JeffreyPtr

Are you claiming there is a cause and effect relationship between society being, in your words, "coarser and better"? All we need do to solve our social problems is to swear more and twerk? Interesting concept but unfortunately correlation has never meant causation. Hundreds, if not thousands, of changes have taken place in society and I doubt any single one of them is solely responsible for the positive changes you mention.

ThirdParent
ThirdParent

I'm not sure that some actors like Miley Cyrus deserve any credit. Not that I am opposed to her "art", but she's just here.

IPYOP
IPYOP

Sometimes all it takes to connect the dots is a really long line.

trinity2016
trinity2016

All sounds very Brave New World to me...

silverfang1977
silverfang1977

Kids today probably don't smoke, drink and have sex as much because they're under 24/7 adult supervision.

CordellEsplin
CordellEsplin

Coarser is never better. Higher moral standards is alway better. People treating people better is always better. A world without abuse, addiction and immorality is always better.  Disrespect for peoples bodies and minds is always worse.  All evil needs is for good men to do nothing.  Have you noticed any instance, any instance where moral standards have improved in our society in the last generation.  We are slouching towards Gromorrah.

George286
George286

Another common sense article that doesn't quite add up to much from a Reason writer, the Libertarian cult.  Does Reason magazine have a project to get  their writers in Time?  

Yes some things are better (no thanks to them), but that doesn't mean vulgarity to offend is a healthy thing.  No I don't want to listen to conversations or entertainment peppered with gratuitous nods to genitals, anal sex and feces (apparently they are running out of remarks that have any shock value to replace talent).  It really has less to do with politics than with a common civility most or all of us are comfortable with,with no insulting my intelligence by resorting to the crude.  

You can observe that the countries that allow pornography and legal prostitution have the least repressive attitude towards women and gays, perhaps that explains the shifting attitude towards gay marriage or perhaps people feel that it is okay for themselves too, no a big deal, something like that.  People acting it out.  On the other the problem with lurid violence entertainment is that there are always a few immature or crazies that take it as reality, just ask the people in that Aurora Colorado theater.   It is not too much of a leap for a kid intoxicated with that to torturing animals or homemade bombs, is it?  Yes media works, just as much as advertising works.

venom_aa
venom_aa

Really a better society? Politicians caring crap about the people needs? Guys going crazy with guns and killing small kids? Dictators gassing towns and nations wondering if its the political right thing to do? People caring less and less for others suffering and instead delving on their own problems? Goverments spying openly on their citizens? Companies over exploiting workers for  low wadges? People thinking less and less and letting others choose for them?
I wonder in what reality does the writer live

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

It's not "morality" that's declining.  It's consideration and manners which are on the decline.

JackShephard
JackShephard

"Yes, pop culture is crude, but who gives an F-word? By virtually every measure, we’re a safer, nicer, kinder country."

- Yeah, unless you speak out against pop culture, speak out against homosexuality, don't buy into evolution or identify with Christianity or the Bible.  Then your taken to task and lambasted for holding those beliefs.  Christianity is becoming the one unacceptable belief system as the recent comments of Justice Scalia demonstrate.

BradFoley
BradFoley

Okay, there are at least 3 people who've commented who really have no idea that yes, violent crime is down. Yes, drug use among youth is down. Yes, petty crime among youth is down. Yes, teen pregnancy and sex among youth is down. These are long term, well reported trends. This is not controversial, or based on one or two shonky studies. Do your research, and don't say "I don't believe it". Seriously, people.

tmerrill
tmerrill

Don't knowwhere you are getting your data...there is a strong data base that suggests violent crime in urban settings (maybe the definition 'violent' is the problem...it changes over time), bullying, sexual assault, physiscal assault, all have increased over the past 10 years. As a country in the world we are more violent as measured by aggression on others (whether we call it 'defending' makes no difference). By any of the standard measures, we are not becoming a 'kinder' people. This is a good discussion to have in open forum to have us all realize the importance of Kindness.

Chosun1
Chosun1

Wouldn't it be great if we could have less violent crime and less Miley Cyrus?  It's not like they are mutually exclusive choices.

alansky
alansky

"...youth violence, sex, and drug use are all trending down"??? REALLY??? You're dreaming, man!!!

LaurieM
LaurieM

Maybe the problem isn't the behavior. I'm a woman and a curse. That doesn't mean I'm immoral or a bad person! We need to judge by the content of character and stop focusing on superficialities like how people dress and speak!!

joburd
joburd

It seems to me that if the nation is becoming more crude then maybe we are becoming more accepting of the little crimes, like smoking, pot, bullying, still important but our society is less likely to report this stuff because our crude media tells us it is not a big deal.  So maybe we are not becoming a safer, nicer, better community.  Just one that is more accepting of bad ethics....if those ethics are not too big of a deal to break

loanfraudvictim
loanfraudvictim

@silverfang1977  The society is "better". Kids don't smoke, drink and have sex as much. However, all these happened not for the right reasons.  Could it be they're under 24/7 "big brother" supervision?  Joke is on us.  Real problem of this society is yet to be unveiled. 

JonGibson
JonGibson

@JackShephard 'Christianity is becoming the one unacceptable belief system' because it's readily apparent to the vast majority of people that those who claim to be Christian are anything but... we're tired of the hypocrisy.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@JackShephard It seems to me that complete ignorance is something against which EVERYONE should speak out.  Your points of view reflect an appalling amount of ignorance (which in turn engenders hatred, intolerance and, often times, violence).  You have the right to be ignorant, willfully or not.  But in the same amendment that gives you the right to be ignorant, is the right to tell people like you that you ARE ignorant and that your kind of ignorance is not good for either you or society.

Remember, beliefs are CHOICES. Facts are not.  The Bible, Christianity and all upon which it is based are myths.  This is also a fact because the assertion that they are myths has been scientifically and logically proven by facts.  Facts are not choices and can not be ignored without ignoring reality as a whole.

Evolution is a fact - and has no connection to your or any other myth. It is also one of the things which proves Christianity is a myth.  Your disbelief in Evolution doesn't mean evolution goes away.  Disbelief in Christianity means Christianity will go away.  This is the difference between a myth and a fact.  Facts don't go away when you stop believing in them.

Finally, homosexuality is not a choice.  People are born the way they're born.  If that means they like girls, they like girls.  If that means they like guys, they like guys.  It that means they swing both ways, then they swing both ways.  This isn't a choice.  It's how people are born.  That is also a fact.  Moralizing about it, basing the viewpoint on a myth, is fine if you don't want to be homosexual, but you, and everyone else, are the way they are whether you believe otherwise or not.  And no amount of belief will change that.

Your reaction to being told these things is what colors your perceptions of your world.  If your belief is sound and solid, nothing anyone can say will shake them no matter how seemingly hostile their tone may be.  That means you would have no resentments, no grief, no questions, no anger about it.

But if you find yourself becoming angry about it, or feel you are under attack, then it's only because your beliefs are full of doubts and uncertainty.  This is because reason and logic, while not easy, actually make more sense than irrational mythology.  That disconnect required for faith between reason and irrationality would be the cause of all your doubts, and your perceptions that others are attacking you rather than trying to correct your misconceptions.  In order to feel less angst about those who try to reason with you, you will, instead, have to give up reason and rationality altogether.

To see by faith, one must shut the eye of reason.  You're trying to look at the world through both eyes.  It doesn't work too well that way.  It's best if you picked one or the other.

Choose wisely...

cryofax
cryofax

@JackShephard And hopefully in a few decades religion won't exist and we can abandon our bronze age belief in superstition.

BradFoley
BradFoley

@tmerrill No. It's not. In every major city (except Chicago in the last couple years) for the last 20 or 30 years, violent crime has dropped hugely. If you doubt it, a) click on the link provided, or b) google it. See also: Pinker, "The Better Angels of Our Nature"  for a 500 page discussion of the topic.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@Chosun1 Less violent crime would be nice, but not real, as for Miley  you underestimate her , she is laughing all the way to the bank and staying in the lime light to make those trips to the bank really pay off.

BradFoley
BradFoley

@alansky Google it, or click on the links provided. It is a well known fact, and it's been discussed at length for maybe the last 10 years.

JonGibson
JonGibson

@joburd 'accepting of little crimes', or realizing that they're not crimes at all, in reference to 'smoking pot'...  think about what makes a crime a crime, and then rationalize why that reasoning should apply to the use of a plant.

lordofthefly
lordofthefly

@cryofax @JackShephard 

You are free to go you own way. This isn't the Middle East. Why do you care what other people believe? If you have a full life, that should keep you focused on the space you occupy. Mind your own space.