The American public square has been blitzed with what Gawker.com, a gossip website, calls “revulse-amusement” and misused for what columnist Andrea Peyser terms a “raunch-fest” — revelry calculated, according to the New York Times, to churn up waves of “ethical nausea.”
In recent weeks alone, as the Times notes:
‐ Entertainment Tonight aired the Caesarean section delivery of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby. Ms. Smith, the reality television star, former Playboy Playmate and would-be heiress, sold the videotape for a reported $1 million.
‐ O. J. Simpson and the now-fired publisher Judith Regan tried floating a sickening fictional “confession” of murder by an acquitted man whom many believed guilty.
‐ Danny DeVito appeared drunk on The View, inveighing against President Bush in a torrent of bleeped comments.
‐ And young mom Britney Spears pulled out all the stops to get attention, during a two-week tour, by exposing her private parts to photographers outside of clubs in Hollywood, while slithering from the backseats of cars.
Peyser relates a most unfunny tale of a recent comedy show intended to raise money for homeless women, many who have been victims of domestic violence:
‐ One comedian featured in the event thought it hilarious to joke about maiming, killing and urinating on his “bitch.”
‐ Another advised men on transforming a lover into a pirate, ejaculating into a woman’s eye, then kicking a leg until she utters “arrrghhh.”
‐ Yet another thought it droll to wisecrack about splitting the skull of his toddler daughter.
A furious Merle Hoffman, president of Choices women’s clinic, pulled her support, commenting, “It’s open season on women. That’s what really infuriates me — misogyny is the last permissible thing.”
Such displays are of course thoroughly designed for profit, or, in the words of critic Thomas Doherty, “gross-out equaled big grosses.” Spears’s morally aberrant antics, for instance, were fabricated as a lucrative flaunting of her celebrity-hood.
What to make of the apparently boundless public appetite for debased and scabrous material, and what Noel Carroll, a professor of the humanities at Temple University calls the ever-mounting “tolerance of boundary-breaking,” that is, the increasingly nonchalant acceptance of the violation of what were once accepted as the common standards of decency?
Janice Irvine, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, interprets this tolerance as a kind of perverse holier-than-thou hedonism. She maintains that the public’s reaction to “socially sensitive issues,” such as O. J. Simpson’s book, “looks like rage, but there’s a lot of pleasure bound up in it. There’s incredible excitement in being publicly outraged. It’s what makes it so powerful.”
Other critics, myself included, view the gross-out phenomenon as a particularly conspicuous sign, among other related cultural dysfunction, of serious rifts in the aesthetic and moral foundations of American civilization (“Hollywood’s Gross-Out Comedies: Cultural Crisis or Festive Freedom?,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 22, 1999).
Michael Medved said as much in his 1992 book Hollywood Versus America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values:
This fascination with filth goes to the heart of the current crisis in the popular culture,” he stated. Underlying its appeal, he wrote, is “the increasingly influential notion that the most important form of aesthetic expression is that which will shock the public and challenge outmoded standards of decency.
The role played by leftist cultural revolutionaries in the contemporary academy, who have propagated the belief in outmoded decency and in fact championed its rejection (as well as that of all manner of other traditional standards of human behavior) has been seminal. As Doherty points out, “The turn-of-the-millennium academic buzz word for all this is ‘transgressive,’ an honorific assigned to any assault on refined sensibilities that lays bare the repression at the heart of bourgeois civilization.”
The gross-out rage shows the extreme degree to which the transgression virus incubated by the intellectuals has entered into the public bloodstream. The lengths to which publicity-mongers must go to shock, and the public’s near inability to be shocked, are indications of what Roger Kimball (writing about transgressive art and sexual liberation in The Survival of Culture) calls “widespread moral anaesthesia”:
The fulfillment…of the radical emancipatory vision enunciated in the 1960s by such gurus as Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown…When Tocqueville warned about the peculiar form of despotism that threatened democracy, he noted that instead of tyrannizing men, as past despotisms had done, it tended to infantilize them…What Tocqueville warned about, Marcuse celebrated, extolling the benefits of returning to a state of “primary narcissism”…in other words,…solipsism…as a moral indulgence, a way of life. (pp. 236-237)
If civilization is to be salvaged, we must transcend transgression — “regress,” as it were, to an understanding of culture as famously defined by Matthew Arnold, culture as the repository of humanity’s highest spiritual, intellectual and aesthetic aspirations, or “the best that has been thought and said in the world.”
There is no denying that it will be a long climb up from the current day depredation of gross-out culture and its like. But climb we must or sink in grossness, and thus be infantilized and ultimately rendered powerless in face of barbarism.
From gross to best? From our lips to the ears of God.
– Candace de Russy is a trustee of the State University of New York and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.