Sunday, March 04, 2007

Civility and Subtlety

I have written previously about civility and choice of language in blogging. We've discussed "F-Bombs" and "bad words" various other expressions.

But there's another aspect of current discourse (both within and without the blogosphere) that I find much more disturbing. That's the casual use of the unthinkable: saying things we can't possibly mean, but in an uncaring way.

The trigger that got me off my rear and blogging again after a few weeks is the current discussion of some inflammatory rhetoric at a conservative political gathering this week. I won't cover the details, since they're quite well documented. (Good discussions by Digby and Glenn Greenwald and Anonymous Liberal.)

What bothers me is not the name-calling. I don't like that, but you know, "sticks and stones...." More worrisome is the casual use of language suggesting killing, genocide, torture, poison, and so on. Some of it is clearly joking, and hey, there's a long history of it. One of my favorite lines from Shakespeare comes from Henry IV, part 2: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." (some context here (PDF)) I used to love wearing a t-shirt with that quote as I walked past the law school at Berkeley.

But as I get older, I hear words coming from my daughter and her friends, suggesting that one can solve problems just by killing people or locking them up or sending them away. One can understand that kind of simplistic, childish reasoning from actual children. But the fact is, we hear it from adults, too.

And last night, my wife and I attended a play at Berkeley Repertory Theatre called "The Pillowman." This is an award-winning play by Martin McDonagh. The play was well done, though I wouldn't say it's a great play. And many of the things that bother me about it are the same things that annoy me about a lot of modern theater, such as excessive, gratuitous swearing.

But the play also rather casually incorporates torture, police brutality, child abuse, murder, and similar topics. And it tries to be funny. Not that these are inappropriate subjects for theater, or even for humor. But it got me to thinking about how inured society has become to depictions and discussions of subjects that ought to be unthinkable.

In fairness, one of the themes of "The Pillowman" is a discussion of this very tension: the main character is a writer, and the writer has written stories that depict some awful things happening to children. When some of those things really happen, the police have issues with the writer.

But in some ways, I suppose it is the play's self-awareness of the gratuitous violence and incivility that bothers me all the more. Part of what makes art art is an artist's ability to convey something without depicting it. Let's just say there are more artful ways of showing that someone is crude than by having him swear a lot and hit other people. A really good writer can do that with words, with descriptions, with metaphor.

Or maybe that's it...maybe subtlety is dead. It would certainly appear to have died long ago in the major media. Watching television these days is like being hit in the face with a two-by-four, repeatedly. Which is probably why I rarely watch. The "nice" shows are treacly, and the "not nice" shows are vulgar, violent, or insipid. Where is the art???

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