Sunday, August 29, 2010

What is Vulgarity?

"Stupidity and vulgarity are harder to put up with than sin, harder on the nerves."
~Flannery O’Connor

What is vulgarity? Is it a matter of personal taste? Yes, in some respects, especially where clothes are concerned, depending upon an individual's personality and bearing, as well as the more obvious physical aspects. At the university I had a Sicilian friend named Francesca who looked like Liza Minelli. Francesca could get away with wearing outrageous, flamboyant clothes that on other people would have been dreadful. In my twenties I had a red hat from Paris. I loved to wear it to church, one of the few places where anyone dressed up, although my grandmother, who dressed quietly, thought it was a bit much. She never used the word "vulgar" but said: "You know, we don't dress up so much up here." By "here" she meant Schenectady, New York. What would have been fine in Paris or even Washington, D.C. was considered excessive in Schenectady.

Of course, the definition of "vulgar" has changed over the years, as the Wikipedia article states:
From the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, "vulgar" simply described the common language or vernacular of a country. From the mid-seventeenth century onward, it began to take on a pejorative aspect: "having a common and offensively mean character, coarsely commonplace; lacking in refinement or good taste; uncultured; ill bred". In the Victorian age, vulgarity broadly described many sorts of activity, such as pushing to get on a bus, wearing ostentatious clothing, and more subtle aspects of behavior. In a George Eliot novel, one character could be vulgar for talking about money, a second because he criticizes the first for doing so, and a third for being fooled by the excessive refinement of the second.
A modern dictionary defines vulgar as: "lacking sophistication or good taste, unrefined: the vulgar trappings of wealth; making explicit and offensive reference to sex or bodily functions: a vulgar joke; (dated) characteristic of or belonging to the masses." Nowadays, all is relative, and good taste or bad taste is determined by the individual, in lieu of the lack of a common standard. It is a standard that has been deteriorating for a long time, little by little, to the detriment of society. In an introduction to Emily Post's 1922 Book of Etiquette, Richard Duffy writes:
  The perfection of manners by intensive cultivation of good taste, some believe, would be the greatest aid possible to the moralists who are alarmed over the decadence of the younger generation. Good taste may not make men or women really virtuous, but it will often save them from what theologians call “occasions of sin.”....Selfishness is at the polar remove from the worldly manners of the old school, according to which... others were preferred to self, pain was given to no one, no one was neglected, deference was shown to the weak and the aged, and unconscious courtesy extended to all inferiors. Such was the “beauty” of the old manners, which he felt consisted in “acting upon Christian principle, and if in any case it became soulless, as apart from Christianity, the beautiful form was there, into which the real life might re-enter.”
Emily Post herself always emphasized that good taste and good manners have nothing to do with money but with sensitivity to the feelings of others by not making ourselves the center of attention. Mrs. Post especially lamented vulgarity in women's clothes and behavior, saying:
Vulgar clothes are those which, no matter what the fashion of the moment may be, are always too elaborate for the occasion; too exaggerated in style, or have accessories out of proportion. People of uncultivated taste are apt to fancy distortions; to exaggerate rather than modify the prevailing fashions.
  For example:...The woman of uncultivated taste has no more sense of moderation than the Queen of the Cannibals....She despises sensible clothing; she also despises plain fabrics and untrimmed models. She also cares little (apparently) for staying at home, since she is perpetually seen at restaurants and at every public entertainment. The food she orders is rich, the appearance she makes is rich; in fact, to see her often is like nothing so much as being forced to eat a large amount of butter—plain.
 I think it can still be agreed that showing off in any way is vulgar, especially if it has to do with flaunting newly acquired wealth. Also, four letter words are vulgar, as I think most people would agree, as well as public discussions of private bodily functions. We have to remember that everyone is not a voyeur and that many are probably not interested in hearing about what goes on (or does not go on) in our private lives.

However, with celebrities talking about their private matters on television and in magazines, it is difficult to find examples for young people. According to Chuck Colson:
In an article in Christianity Today, I once quoted the great historian Arnold Toynbee. He contended that one clear sign of a civilization's decline is when the elites—people he describes as the "dominant minority"—begin mimicking the vulgarity and promiscuity exhibited by society's bottom-dwellers. The result: The entire culture is vulgarized.
Christians need to resist the slide into vulgarity by creating strong counter-cultural influences. We can start by elevating our own standards in speech and dress, if we need to.
Those of us who want kindness and courtesy in society instead of the prevailing rudeness and vulgarity must give an example, which can be difficult in today's world. This can be a struggle when it is easier to blend in with the status quo. It takes strength of character to be kind in the face of rudeness, when a harsh retort would just be so easy. Believe me, I know quite well how it is to slip and fall in that regard. I am blessed, however, because I had the example of my grandmother, an example I wish I had heeded more at the time.



Lily said...

This is a tangible explanation of what seems to have become intangible in today's world. I am continuously disgusted with the entertainment industry, and find your quote about the "dominant minority" mimicking the bottom-dwellers to be striking. I believe I can make good use of your post in my homeschool, as well as providing a link on my blog.

Julygirl said...

I recall Baron Von Trapp (Sound of Music) being horrified at the idea of his children appearing on stage as entertainers, now the entertainment industry has become the benchmark by which we measure ourselves.

Parisienne Farmgirl said...

Vulgar is one of my favorite words. I am the only person I know who employes it. It says so many things even though it is so small and easily said.
Very nice post.

anothertwocents said...

What brought this vulgarity into our American world, and so much woe, were, I contend, the Civil Rights Acts. Before these changes, for which we have moral authorities such as Bernard Cardinal Law, whose American career ended with him fleeing to Rome a few hours before he would have been subpoenaed to answer about his complicity with pederasts, the palpably uneducated and the impoverished were denied the right to vote. (As an aside, I cannot imagine a Pope from a good family, such as Pius XII, accepting as an arch-priest at one of Rome's basilicas, a cleric hiding from the law to avoid assuming responsibility for his abetting pederasts. What sort of man poses as a priest, and helps other priests escape responsiblity for heinous sins?)

This created a societal dynamic in which voting and citizenship were seen as privileges, and society set an onus to eschew vulgarity. Absent the taboo on the vulgar, society becomes a race to the bottom; enter Paris Hilton et al.

Some parts of the Civil Rights Acts were badly needed, and to oppose them was to deviate from Christ's expectations of us, and yet we ejected the baby with the bath water.

By their fruits ye shall know them.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you for the link, Lily!

Yes, Julygirl, isn't it ironic?

I agree, Parisienne, it is a word which expresses a great deal.

Anothertwocents, I think the vulgarization of society began long before the Civil Rights Act. Things started gong down hill in the 1920's after the First World War.

anothertwocents said...

With all due respect, I am not convinced. The flappers partied and used drugs, drugs that in our day have jack-booted cops in ski masks kicking in your door at night, at least if you are pigmentation-challenged or live on the wrong side of the tracks. But then when they got into their thirties, they got with the program, and later on forced their kids to watch Bing Crosby movies.

One can already find among the ancient Egyptians complaints that the youth drive their chariots too fast, drink too much honey beer, and no longer respect their elders.

As the prophet said, there is nothing new under the sun; nil novi sub soli.

But illegitimacy, crime, and bad manners were simply seen as pathologies in their day.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post!

The best way to change the world around us is to change ourselves; we must act with the manners and kind regard of others that we wish everyone to exhibit towards us. Bad manners are catching, but good manners do catch on, too.

Mary Bennett said...

I posted you link to my blog. Lilly sent me!


elena maria vidal said...

Kindness IS contagious, Gette!

Thank you very much, Mary!