Our less repressive world tolerates empty vessels and their noise
Published 10/02/2014 | 02:30
When Jerry Buttimer spoke poignantly in the Dail last week about the verbal abuse that he has been subjected to, as a gay man – "beaten, spat on, chased, harassed and mocked" – I wondered how much of this odious behaviour was down to a decline in manners.
I met a woman at the weekend who had just returned to Britain after more than 20 years in Japan. She spoke about the "culture shock" of readjusting to English life after two decades away. What was most shocking? "People are much ruder. Much more brusque."
Has this also happened in Ireland? Are people simply ruder, quicker to resort to name-calling, verbal abuse and generally unkind language than they used to be? Perhaps any such judgment has to be subjective and dependent on individual experience.
Bullying and mockery wasn't exactly unknown in the past – those of us who are on the stout side have been taunted as 'fatties' and 'podge', while anyone short-sighted has inevitably been called 'four-eyes'. Yet this was more in a spirit of competitive raillery than vicious insult, and was certainly condemned in what was called "polite society".
It's evident that the culture, in general, has become more outspoken, more raucous and more uninhibited in recent decades. Deference and 'hypocrisy' have declined and candour is more admired than discretion. What was once called "coarse language" is much more acceptable in everyday speech, and anyone who objects is considered prudish and even censorious.
Take a movie like 'The Wolf of Wall Street' – greatly praised and surely in line for an Oscar or two: the swaggering characters involved, and most especially the energetic Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort, seldom open their mouths without uttering the F-word (repeated more than 500 times in the film), sometimes the C-word and always the S-word.
Women are constantly called "bitches" – which is also commonly used in African-American slang – and gay men are repeatedly referred to as "fags" and "faggots".
Straight men are deliberately insulted by being called "faggots", and there is a particularly sadistic scene involving the torment of a gay man after a scene involving an orgy.
The movie is, obviously, portraying a particularly nasty breed of characters involved in crooked financial activity, but the register of this language, these attitudes and the general verbal abuse (let alone the ubiquitous drug-taking and sexual debauchery) is firmly placed in the mainstream of the way we talk and interact now. It is acceptable entertainment.
The crooks of yesteryear were probably just as crooked, but they sure spoke more stylishly – and certain aspirational protocols about treating women as ladies, rather than "bitches", and "hookers", were maintained.
Social hypocrisy, in the past, probably repressed people from speaking their mind – or "coming out" in their true identity, too. But it may also have sheltered some people from the more brutal elements of hurtful name-calling.
Social hypocrisy told children "don't make personal remarks", "don't point", and "show respect" (especially to "your elders and betters"). "Mind your own business" was a reproof to curiosity and loud opinions were dismissed with phrases such as "Empty vessels make the most sound".
All this was repressive, but some repressions are socially useful: civilisation would hardly survive if everyone spoke their mind about everything all the time.
Compare the experiences which Mr Buttimer – and his colleague John Lyons – outlined, of recently being publicly taunted for their sexual orientation, with the case of the late actor Micheal MacLiammoir, who died in 1978.
MacLiammoir lived with his partner Hilton Edwards near St Stephen's Green in Dublin and would often walk down Grafton Street in full stage make-up – he favoured a Max Factor Pancake foundation, along with mascara, a coral lipstick and a toupee.
In all the years of appearing on the streets of Dublin in this flamboyant way, MacLiammoir was never treated other than with respect and affection by the Dublin people. When he died, they turned up in hundreds at his funeral to show that respect and affection.
Moreover, in his published diaries, Sir Noel Coward writes of enjoying an especially wonderful time in Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s when he visited Edwards and MacLiammoir – and how welcoming and warm the Irish public were.
(Noel Coward received his knighthood rather late in his life because the British political powers didn't approve of his homosexuality – it took the urging of the Queen Mother to get him his well-deserved gong. Yet he found Ireland tolerant.)
The decorum of the time was, of course, that people did not speak openly about their sex lives – of any orientation. If anyone disapproved of Micheal MacLiammoir's way of life they would not have said so, publicly, because it would have been impolite.
In any case he was so popular – as a great man of the theatre and an Irish scholar – and his talents and charm were in the foreground, rather than his sexual orientation, which was considered his own business.
To be sure, other individuals suffered in silence because of the prevailing emphasis on decorum and hypocrisy. But today we live in a society which places more value on honesty and plain speaking than on manners.
Verbal abuse is everywhere, from movies to the internet, and the hateful insults that are issued forth in all directions are at least part of the lifting of all social inhibitions.