A friend and I recently exchanged emails bemoaning the seemingly pervasive crassness of contemporary culture. We both felt alienated from a society in which it apparently is OK to ignore the pain your behavior and decisions inflict upon others. Our particular exchange was prompted by the recent vote on gay marriage here in North Carolina where a majority of (I assume) straight voters decided that it was OK to prevent their gay friends and neighbors from getting married.
I wrote about my disappointment in the vote not long ago, so I won’t rehash the issue here, but it was only one in a depressing stream of acceptable uncivil incidents that clutter our social landscape. From our driving, to our politics, to business meetings, to those who sell us our morning coffee, afternoon groceries, or evening repast, to our online interactions, we seem to be morphing into the land of the ruthless rude.
So maybe my nerves were on edge when I stumbled upon something called “King of the Rock” on CBS the other night. The premise was simple; the finals of a one-on-one “streetball” (basketball) tournament played on the exercise yard of Alcatraz. It was played at night, with harsh lighting appropriate for a defunct maximum security prison. That same lighting made it hard to tell, but I think all but one of the finalists were African-Americans. Before the final match, a rapper did a song stressing that murderers had “stalked this very yard.” Then there was a great deal of glaring and generally thuggish posturing mixed with stunningly mediocre basketball, which culminated in some guy who went by the name “Baby Shaq” beating some man of simpler sobriquet who occasionally had the good grace to appear embarrassed to be there. Maybe he threw the game, because Baby Shaq had told the audience, “I really need the money.”
I was offended by the whole thing, and I’m a 63-year-old white guy. I hope African-American parents were incensed enough that the sponsor, Red Bull, sees a boycott. Given, however, that this was the third year of “King of the Rock,” I doubt it will happen. Racial squeamishness aside, it was still another example in the string of public celebrations of thuggish and rude behavior erupting across the nation and beyond. “We really ought to be embarrassed,” I thought. “Please tell me that somewhere out there the parents of the players, performers, producers and sponsors of this fiasco are sunk in despair, shaking their heads and muttering, ‘I taught you better than that!’”
And that is when it struck me. Maybe nobody teaches "better than that” anymore. I mean, ruthless rudeness can’t be just the spinoff from increasingly clueless media. Maybe thugs and slackers are the natural Darwinian offspring of hippies and yuppies. There have to be some strong genes for rudeness and ruthlessness in that pool, right?! I started to hyperventilate, so I took myself out for a walk.
Deep calming breath. Nice clouds. One, no, two hawks hanging motionless above the trees.
You see, there was a time when, even in ruthless, highly competitive sports, there was at least the idea of a gentleman. In 1892, “Gentleman Jim” Corbett knocked out John L. Sullivan in the 21st round to claim the World Heavyweight title. Gentleman Joe Palooka played a similar role in the nation’s newspaper funny pages throughout the 1930s and 40s. For decades, the cry before the Indianapolis 500 was “Gentlemen, start your engines!”
“Whither,” I mused pensively, “today’s ‘gentleman’?”
That naturally took me to Ngram. What’s an Ngram, you ask? Excellent question. One of which I have to remind myself every few months. Ngam, at http://books.google.com/ngrams, is one of Google’s lesser known, but very cool, products. It is, as you can tell, from the URL part of Google’s “books” project — their typically understated attempt to scan every book in the entire world. The Ngram piece lets you enter a word or series of words into a text field, and when you hit return, you get a graph that shows you the extent to which that word was used in books from 1800 until 2000. Fascinating, try it. No, no, not now. Let me finish, please, gentle reader.
OK, so I go to Ngram and enter the word “gentleman.” The result starts with the “gentleman” of the 1800s high atop the left hand side of the graph. From there, he performs an Olympic downhill slalom run sliding into near obscurity by the year 2000. I try his counterparts from the fairer sex — “gentlewoman” and “Lady.” They, too, sweep majestically downhill.
I think you see where I’m going here. I wonder: when the words associated with a pattern of behavior decline in a culture, does that mean that the behavior itself also declines? It seems logical. If a thing, a referent, remains important in the world, then the number of words that identify or make reference to that thing should remain constant. OK, I realize there are issues here, since Ngram only uses the data from the books that Google scanned. But such a consistent pattern of decline in the usage of words associated with a specific type of behavior — considering, for example, that “etiquette,” “manners” and “polite” show only slightly less precipitous Ngram drops than “gentleman” — has to mean something (especially since I want it to). I next entered “crass” and “greed” into Ngram, and the trend reversed. The year 1800 was the valley and 2000 was the top of the mountain — another confirmation of my bias. Our world is sliding into “thugishness,” in language and behavior. (“Thug” itself, after a seemingly aberrant flurry of popularity in 1820, follows the pattern of crass and greed. “Thugish” and “thugishness” apparently appear only in this essay.)
While it may be a faint cry in the wilderness, I would like to advocate a return to the use of the word “gentleman" — though not in the paternalistic sense that may have swelled its usage in the age of Jane Austin. Rather, I propose its use in a simpler sense, in a sense that recognizes that “gentleman” is a compound word that refers to an individual who is both male and gentle. Perhaps, if we breathe new life into the word, the behavior will follow.