The Death of Standards

By | June 26, 2014 | 0 Comments


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– Bumper sticker, 2008

National Labor Relations Board rules that cursing a customer or a manager is not a valid reason to fire an employee.
– News report, 2014

What do I mean by standards? I mean rules to live by. I mean external principles, separate from our own whims or personal opinions. I mean a yardstick with which to measure the actions of ourselves and others. I mean the awareness that I am not the center of the universe, so that how I behave cannot depend solely on how I feel at that particular moment.

To anyone of my generation, that first paragraph would be unnecessary, even slightly insulting. The people I grew up with knew very well what standards were. We took them for granted. We didn’t always live up to them, though we recognized what they were. But over time − in this case, a rather short time − things changed. We can no longer take standards for granted. In fact, we are no longer sure what they are. So let me give some examples of how standards are dying.

● We use foul language without thinking about it. We no longer object when even small children say “that sucks” instead of “that’s awful.” We pretend to be unaware of what “that sucks” really means. So language deteriorates, and we now say things in front of children that past generations would say only in a bar. If you doubt this, go to a baseball game and hear the cursing by the fans. Or walk down the hallway of a high school and hear how our future citizens are unable to express themselves without four-letter words. So when Mayor Garcetti of Los Angeles declared that the Kings winning the Stanley Cup was a “big f****ing day,” the crowd cheered. And why not? They saw nothing wrong with an official dropping the “f-bomb” – in public, in front of children.

● We have lost the concept of adulthood. We act like middle-school boys, whose idea of humor is punctuated by belching, flatulence, and four-letter words. We watched MTV as children, then graduated to Saturday Night Live and rock videos. No wonder we have no idea of decent language, or even decent behavior. We say things in front of women and children that used to be said only in men’s locker rooms. And because actions tend to follow words, our behavior deteriorates as well.

● We have lost the distinction between public and private. In my day, I spoke freely with my wife at home. But in front of other people, especially women or children, I would “watch my tongue.” When did you last hear that expression? Not in years, I’ll bet. Daytime TV “pity parties” have accustomed us to men and women baring their intimate secrets in front of millions of strangers. Small children run around naked without embarrassment. Then they develop a sense of shame and privacy. That’s part of growing up − assuming they do grow up, rather than merely grow larger.

● We no longer feel a need to restrain ourselves. I never saw my father cry. Perhaps my mother saw this, but I doubt it. In those days, stoicism was valued, especially by men, but also by women and older children. “Cry-baby” was a serious insult, and boys were told to “grow up” and “be a man.” Sometimes this went too far, and repressed emotions caused trouble. Now we have gone too far in the other direction. Men become tearful in public, even on TV. But when disaster strikes, which it will, we need calm leaders, not tearful, touchy-feely “metrosexuals.” Would Rick Rescorla have been able to lead nearly 3000 people (but not himself) to safety on 9/11 if he had been weeping rather than singing old marching songs through a bullhorn?

● We have lost the ability to criticize without insulting, or to disagree without hating. Like small children, we react to minor frustrations by screaming. Never until the 2008 election would I have heard haters tell a candidate that her baby with Down’s syndrome should be dead, or that she herself should be “aborted.” Never before do I recall haters “joking” that the candidate’s husband is “doing” their young daughters, or cartooning her being punched in the face and a tooth knocked out. Even if people had such hateful thoughts, they would have been inhibited from expressing them by fear of public condemnation. But now there is no condemnation, because people see nothing to condemn. And if we laugh about hitting a vice-presidential candidate in the face, is it a surprise when some think it’s all right to hit an ordinary woman in the face?

● We have lost a sense of proportion. We use up our worst epithets for political opponents, so we have nothing left to describe real evildoers. I was called a “Nazi” for criticizing Bill Clinton, and an African American I knew was called a “Klansman” for being conservative. Those who use such insults are being intentionally hurtful. Even worse, they are diluting the terrible meaning of these words. I could forgive the man for insulting me, but I could never forgive him for trivializing Nazism.

● We have scrapped all yardsticks for measuring behavior, so all we have left is our feelings. Does a politician express views with which we disagree? Then why not insult her and her family with vicious slurs? Why not depict her being hit in the face? Like three-year-olds, we scream and hit. We don’t know any better. We don’t reason; we just emote.

● We have discarded all standards, so we feel free to do as we please, and we accord the same freedom to those who agree with us. But let conservatives do anything even remotely objectionable, and we condemn them in the harshest terms. We have no standards, so we can’t violate them, no matter what we do. We immunize ourselves from being called hypocrites. But we are quick to use this insult for anyone who espouses standards, then fails to live up to them perfectly.

Still, we can be judgmental, though of course we don’t call it that. You see, we judge by our feelings, not by external standards. When they judge, they’re being judgmental, but when we judge, we’re being “caring,” “tolerant,” and “inclusive.” How convenient. How easy. But in the age of feelings, convenience and ease are everything.

We wanted to do as we please, so we threw away the rule book. But without a rule book, the referee becomes a dictator. The government now controls everything from light bulbs and toilets to dishwasher detergent to what our kids eat for lunch. Doing as we please is rapidly becoming doing as the government pleases. How’s that working out?

Standards? What standards? We threw them out of the car window several miles back. But they are still there on the roadside, a bit dusty perhaps, but quite intact. All we need to do is turn around, go back, and pick them up.

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