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.