Magazine | July 15, 2013, Issue

The Inappropriate ‘Inappropriate’

An adjective abused

Some conservatives believe that it was reverence for the Constitution that constrained the growth of government in the early days of the republic, while the economist Arnold Kling has argued that the frontier — an escape hatch for the energetic and imaginative — kept the state from getting out of hand. My own theory is that political ambition was leashed because Americans in the late 18th century lacked the word “inappropriate,” the earliest usage of which is attested, as the etymologists say, in 1804. How politics was practiced at all without the word “inappropriate” is difficult to imagine from the vantage point of anno Domini 2013. It is the irreplaceable word, five mustelid syllables without which the conduct of modern government would be all but impossible.

Bill Clinton was of course the master of the inappropriate. During the lead-up to his confessing to crossing the line with a strapping young fellatrix from the intern pool, President Clinton threw the word “inappropriate” around a good deal. Asked by National Public Radio whether he had talked to Monica Lewinsky about her testimony, Clinton did not deny that he had — instead, he said only that it would be “inappropriate” for him to revisit his earlier statements about the case.

President Clinton was willing to use the word “inappropriate” to describe others and to describe actions that he did not intend to take, but at the critical moment, he could not quite apply it to himself. You remember the video, surely: Bill Clinton, dark suit, blue tie, testily informing America that sitting in this very office and speaking from this very chair, he had answered questions from the special prosecutor and the grand jury, including questions about his private life. “Indeed, I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was” — and here a brief micro-expression of rage mists across his face — “. . . not appropriate.” Not “inappropriate,” mind you: We all know that whatever “inappropriate” means, it isn’t the dictionary definition. It isn’t just not appropriate, but immoral, unseemly, possibly criminal. A guy willing to parse the meaning of “is” knows the difference between “not appropriate” and “inappropriate.”

“Inappropriate” as a marker of sexual misconduct spread through the public discourse like C. trachomatis through a frat house. When an administrator at the University of Tennessee was accused of having “inappropriate” relations with the basketball team — and fixing their grades — speculation about a “possible inappropriate relationship” quickly became speculation about “multiple inappropriate relationships,” though sources at the university, home to a well-regarded college of engineering, did not say whether those were wired in parallel or in series.

The intersection of sex and politics is where “inappropriate” lives and thrives. When the FBI looked into what it called “potentially inappropriate” communiqués between General John Allen and Florida socialite Jill Kelley, some thousands of “inappropriate” e-mails were recovered, according to London’s Guardian, and the Pentagon labeled them “inappropriate and flirtatious.” General Allen was in the crosshairs after an investigation into General David Petraeus’s “inappropriate” (NBC News) relationship with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, was revealed. Broadwell had sent catty e-mails to Kelley accusing her of having an “inappropriate” (USA Today) relationship with the very general with whom she was having an inappropriate relationship. But that probably was to be expected: Broadwell wore “inappropriate” clothes in Afghanistan, according to Forbes — and on the Charlie Rose program and The Daily Show, according to a half-dozen other commentators. Naturally, feminist critics found this alleged “slut shaming” “inappropriate.” It also emerged that Generals Petraeus and Allen both had become involved in a nasty custody case on behalf of Kelley’s sister, which Reuters judged “inappropriate.” General Allen did not face an “inappropriateness” hearing but a “misconduct” hearing, and he was cleared. That’s the great thing about the “inappropriate” — it may be nasty, but it doesn’t land you in court.

Paula Broadwell probably had a better handle on what “inappropriate” is supposed to mean in the English language than most people in politics and media. She anonymously advised Kelley that she should cease swanning around military bases in pursuit of generals: “You need to take it down a notch.” (How’s that for slut shaming?) Kelley denied such wrongdoing and — appropriately enough — hired the lawyer who represented the Democrats during the Clinton-Lewinsky business to look after her interests. He says that his client was dragged into this scandal simply because she and her husband had the bad luck to have been “the subjects of inappropriate and potentially threatening behavior by someone else.”

#page#As I write, the New York Post reports that Paula Deen has apologized for using “inappropriate” language. Question: In what context is the word associated with her case appropriate?

The IRS bullying its critics? “Inappropriate,” according to the internal investigation. And “wholly inappropriate,” according to Jay Carney. You know you’ve crossed a line when you get to “wholly inappropriate,” which is one degree beyond “totally inappropriate.”

The word has migrated to Europe, of course, with Italy blazing the trail: Berlusconi offensivo e inappropriato sulle donne. Inappropriato is singular and masculine, like Silvio Berlusconi, while inappropriate is feminine and plural, like his troubles.

Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian, bless him, has had enough, writing: “The Barclays scandal is not ‘wholly inappropriate.’ It’s a crime. . . . Inappropriate? Inappropriate is wearing a tie to a barbecue. Wholly inappropriate is burping during the wedding vows. Distorting for personal gain a rate that underpins contracts worth $350 trillion worldwide is rather more than ‘inappropriate.’”

So is the statutory rape of schoolchildren, but Michelle Hansen (special-ed teacher, California), Amy Beck (middle-school teacher, California), Abbie Jane Swogger (former exotic dancer and teacher’s aide, Pennsylvania), and at least 26 Texas schoolteachers since the beginning of this year were accused of having “inappropriate” relationships with students as young as 14 years of age. Chester the Molester is now Chester the Inappropriate.

In 2010, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went to the United Nations and claimed that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, had been orchestrated by the U.S. government. In the furor that followed, the U.S. delegation walked out, joined by those of 27 European nations, the European Union, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Costa Rica. U.S. Representative Scott Garrett (R., N.J.) boldly declared the statement “inappropriate.” But at least theoretical barbecues are safe from the inappropriateness of the habitually tie-free Iranian moonbat.

When the U.S. embassy in Cairo tried to suck up to those who were gearing up to attack the consulate in Benghazi — condemning “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims” — Mitt Romney called it “disgraceful.” But after five minutes of the usual Washington how-dare-you-sir routine, Romney changed his mind: The embassy’s statement was merely “inappropriate.” Romney being Romney, he then explained the meaning of “inappropriate”: “I think it was not directly applicable and appropriate for the setting.”

Back in the heyday of Clintonism, Rush Limbaugh wrote his famous “35 Undeniable Truths,” of which No. 34 was “Words mean things.” No. 35 was “Too many Americans can’t laugh at themselves anymore,” which perhaps he’ll keep in mind when I note that in his apology to Sandra Fluke, he characterized describing her with the words “slut” and “prostitute” as “inappropriate.” Which of course it was: Prostitutes earn their living, and Fluke is the patron saint of Generation Suckle. But still, perhaps not exactly the right word. Rush was echoing John Boehner, who also called the remarks “inappropriate.”

Washington culture is a specialized expression of celebrity culture, and, like their counterparts in Hollywood, the denizens of the Imperial City and its media suburbs appear to be at once something more than human and something less. They are cartoon figures invested with Olympian powers. But they cannot quite put together a meaningful English sentence or express a normal human sentiment.

In reality, there is no setting in which the Cairo embassy’s statement would have been appropriate. There is no setting in which it is appropriate for Paula Deen to use racial slurs, for Bill Clinton to use the intern pool, for teachers to bed 14-year-old students, for General Petraeus to be a general hound dog, for Iranian nutters (and their American celebrity counterparts) to make false and idiotic claims about 9/11, or for agents of the U.S. government to abuse their powers to harass their political rivals. Those things are not “inappropriate.” Rather, they are, in order: backward and bigoted, adulterous and abusive, criminal and exploitative, adulterous and dangerous, loony and wicked, and a threat to the very architecture of a free constitutional republic. “Inappropriate” is not a synonym for “evil.”

Adultery is like usury: Anything enduring into modern times but ancient enough to have an Old Testament injunction against it can safely be assumed to be a part of the human condition. So is lying, and so is the temptation to abuse positions of power. All are sins. Not especially exotic ones, and certainly not unforgivable ones. But forgiveness requires of us a certain honesty about our transgressions, which is not to be found lurking in the penumbras of “inappropriate.”

Unhappily, the cultural tide has turned in the opposite direction, toward an ironically self-aware use of “inappropriate.” In an episode of the television show Scandal, a married political figure is attempting to seduce a colleague. She protests that the relationship would be “inappropriate.” He replies: “So let’s be inappropriate.”

Let’s not.

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