The Carrie Prejean affair, particularly the reaction of Mr. Obermann and others, has prompted the Word Sommelier to dust off the old dictionary once again. In this installment, we examine the word "indecency".
"Decent" and "indecent" are a curious pair of words. It seems like "indecent" ought to simply be a derivative of "decent". It is, but the split was accomplished in Latin; each word subsequently made its way into English independently. We get "decent" from the Middle French, and ultimate from the Latin decentem, which meant "being suitable or fitting". "Indecent" arrives directly from the Latin indecentum (obviously "not suitable or fitting"). "Indecent" therefore has acquired a meaning that is subtly different than merely "not decent".
When we call something "decent", we can mean a range of approbatory things. We can mean something conforms to standards of good taste or decorum. This relates to the earliest usage of the word in English, where "decent" bore connotations of "appropriate to one's social rank". We can mean that something is free from offensive immodesty. We can mean something is fairly, although not exceptionally good. A "decent" restaurant is acceptable whereas a "decent" cabaret would probably disappoint.
"Decent", then, has wide scope. It can mean bare sufficiency of taste, or something considerably above that.
"Indecent", on the other hand, has narrower scope. It always carries a whiff of repugnance. That which is "indecent" not only fails to meet standards of decorum, but exercises a kind of wicked fascination. That which is indecent is not merely inadequate; it is positively damaging to standards of character and taste. Thus while Mr. Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code fails to meet the Word Sommelier's minimum standards of literary taste, he would never characterize it as "indecent".
Within US law, "indecent" is bracketed between "inoffensive" and "obscene". There is a three prong test used for "obcene": (1) an average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest (i.e., material having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts); (2) the material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law; and (3) the material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
So that which is offensive, but not "obscene" should be called "indecent", according to the law. From a philosophical standpoint, such a litmus test distinction is not very satisfying. If a work is capable of damaging morality or virtue, it does not lose that potential through the addition of homeopathic quantities of artistic merit. This litmus test exists merely to provide a presumption of innocence for artistic works; it keeps the courts and government censors out of the business of weighing a work's artistic merits against its morally corrupting effects.
Which brings us to Mr. Olbermann and Mr. Musto on the April 30 2009 Countdown:
OLBERMANN: There it is there, Miss California is opposed to same-sex marriage, which is at least marriage between two human beings, but she has fully endorsed now marriage between a man and a woman who is partially made out of plastic.
MUSTO: She is dumb and twisted. She‘s sort of like a human Barbie Doll. You tell Perez Hilton you are against gay marriage. That‘s like telling Simon Cowell you‘re against screeching a show tune. This is the kind of girl who sits on the TV and watches the sofa. You know, she thinks innuendo is a Italian suppository.
[No video link because the World Sommelier does not approve of judging words that way.]
The Word Sommelier does not habitually pass judgments on matters of taste and morality. Prudery and prurience are neighbors in more than the pages of the dictionary. The Word Sommelier's concern is mainly for beauty and power of expression. Yet this is the kind of exchange that causes him to despair, because the very thoughts expressed are ugly. It is a form of ugliness very familiar to him: the attitude of the educated and intelligent toward those they consider beneath them. This is very the fault for which Jane Austen's Mr. Knightley upbraided Emma in her treatment of elderly and boorish Miss Bates. It is not that Emma has shown herself superior to Miss Bates, which we naturally accept. The pain is that she has cut her own stature down in the process.
Such thoughts are aesthetically irredeemable. There is no way to clothe them in words to make them appear admirable, and indeed it is a shame with so many wonderful, beautiful words that have been said that we must make room for such as these. The only possible way to justify such thoughts is to seek outside the words themselves to appeal to the depravity and malice of their object's opinion; to claim that by doing that object an evil turn we are doing a good deed.
Yet this is the very exercise the Word Sommelier has found unsupportable in the case of "obscenity." That Olmbermann's and Musto's words are well intentioned there can be no doubt. Yet their words are with equal certainty depraved. They dehumanize Ms. Prejean, reduce her to a status of an object. Against this presumably petty evil we are implicitly expected to weigh the alleged depravity of Ms. Prejean's views. It is the view of the Word Sommelier however that such justifications of poor taste are "indecent". This kind of objectification is actually more depraved when it has extraneous "justification". Mere pornography is a largely harmless appeal to natural animal lust. Dehumanizing an enemy for a "cause" is a corruption and degradation of moral reason itself. Surely Mr. Olbermann has better in him than this. We know he has great capacity for erudition and eloquence, which is sadly missing here. We may do well to cut wicked people and thoughts down to size, but our choice of weapon matters. To cut both sides off at the knees may leave the Good in a superior position, yet greatly diminished from what it ought to be.
One constant source of pain for the word lover is the careless use of hyperbole as a form of emphasis. It devalues words, and even thoughts. It would be hyperbole to call Mr. Olbermann "The Worst Person in the World". Rather, he may be the person who falls most short of what he might be. This goes right back the original English sense of decency: suitable to one's station. The Word Sommelier judges Mr. Olbermann's remarks as unsuited to his station.