Losing our cool


COOLNESS USED to be displayed in unflappable self-confidence, swagger supported by refined skill, and graceful charm conveyed through wit. Now it seems to require only a lack of rudimentary sensibility and an easy rapport with vulgarity.

So I expect that Everybody Loves Raymond co-star Patricia Heaton will be viewed as lacking in cool. She chose to walk out on the American Music Awards Jan. 13, leaving before she was scheduled to appear on stage to introduce a video presentation of the show's history.

Her action arose out of disgust with the tone of the show that was famously hosted by television's popularly profane Osbourne family, whose crudeness was taken by some other participants in the awards show as a license to behave likewise. If only Ms. Heaton's sensibilities had a following to rival the Osbournes'.

But there appears to be little chance that what used to be called good taste will enjoy a comeback anytime soon. It is, after all, hip to be foulmouthed, especially at moments when decent society would find it least appropriate and most revolting. What is especially disturbing, however, is how much we allow this drift toward approved vulgarity to infect attitudes about conduct in general.

While a rising tide may lift all boats, a sinking ship creates a downdraft that consumes everything in its vicinity. So it is with a cavalier disregard for social convention. What we find acceptable in one situation tends to spill over into other venues, particularly in our media-saturated popular culture.

The erosion of proper language and social restraint is a symptom of our willingness to expect and accept less. It is a reduction in the cost of admission to a place at the table of our approval - a cheapening of our standards. And what plays in the forum of national television soon becomes the copied norm of our everyday discourse.

Societal standards are intended to induce behavior that is beneficial to the interests of society in general. Throwing them aside as outdated, culturally biased limitations on individual expression might make for great popular psychology, but it creates a vacuum in values and expectations. The abandonment of standards leaves nothing but the lowest common denominator and, as the American Music Awards show and so much of popular entertainment will attest, it's pretty low and pretty common.

If we do not value the elements of cultural refinement, we are not very likely to enjoy its benefits, such as producing the literate, engaged and informed citizenry that democracy requires. Indeed, popularizing lewdness may have consequences far beyond what we have to endure on our TV screens.

Consider, for example, the impediments to creating successful schools that arise when popular culture promotes the concept that public displays of self-absorbed ignorance and crudity are to be admired. The last thing a school system needs is a population influenced by an ideal that places little value on intellect and academic achievement and makes them things to be disdained.

Failing schools are as much about attitude as about ability. A culture that shows so little regard for standards and such a ready willingness to embrace indecency does no favors for a city struggling to improve its schools and to develop a family population that pays taxes and maintains neighborhoods.

When we adopt coarseness as a virtue and slovenliness as a way of life, there is little likelihood we will find ourselves enriched as an outcome. We may find ourselves adrift in a sea of incivility. Moreover, we may find that the values we discard were the things that ensured our continued progress as a people.

Resurrecting a higher standard of what is cool can only be to our benefit.

When we accept less, less is all we should expect.

Raymond Daniel Burke is a partner in a Baltimore law firm.

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