Portland, Ore. -- Here's something for Americans of all ages to think about: If your daily life were a feature film starring everyone you know, what kind of rating would it get from the Motion Picture Association of America?
This question popped into my mind several months ago when I heard a radio interview with two guys who were involved in the production of a popular teen-oriented movie. Because of strong language and various "adult" themes, the film had been assigned an R rating.
The radio host wondered how the movie guys felt about making a picture focused on teenage story lines that kids under 17 wouldn't be allowed to see in theaters unless accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.
The answer came without hesitation. The two partners claimed that dirty words and gross humor are normal elements of modern society. As an example, one of them asserted that whenever any group of people is sitting around in someone's living room, it's not possible to tell a really good joke or have an entertaining discussion unless the dialogue is R-rated.
"That's just how life is," was the core of their opinion. My first reaction was, "On what planet?" A civilization structured around obnoxious behavior seems like the plot of a Star Trek episode. I can envision the blurb in TV Guide: "Kirk and Spock beam down to a rowdy world populated entirely by eighth-grade boys."
But as the years go by, more evidence piles up that makes me think those movie guys may be closer to the truth than I want to admit.
The latest example came during a campaign stop in South Carolina by Sen. John McCain. A woman in the audience asked the Arizona Republican about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, using terminology more suited for dog breeding seminars.
Sometimes these R-rated incidents cause controversy, but it's usually short-lived. Don Imus lost his syndicated talk show earlier this year after making crude comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team, but now it looks as if he'll return to the airwaves in December.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, then-candidate George W. Bush, in front of an open microphone, insulted a New York Times reporter with an anatomical reference.
It's a trend that's been building for decades. When I was managing a college radio station in the early 1970s, the Federal Communications Commission still strictly enforced broadcast standards that had been in effect since the Depression. Bad language could get a station license revoked. I told my staff repeatedly never to goof around and play "party records" on the air.
I don't think party records exist anymore. Dirty comedy routines are now mainstream entertainment. Basic cable TV services run R-rated movies with little or no editing. Satellite radio offers a wide-open spectrum of provocative speech.
For many people, none of these trends is a problem. A common reaction is, "Hey, get over it."
I hope this doesn't sound like the ranting of an uptight geezer. It just seems to me that being courteous in public makes the everyday world easier to deal with. Good manners are not a form of elitism. And when I meet people who curse casually, I wonder if they're being crude as a form of rebellion against authority or because it's easier than building a large vocabulary.
Can you picture a future in which the concept of polite society has ceased to exist and expletives are enthusiastically included in all forms of communication? Can you imagine an R rating every time you start a conversation?
There's no way I want to be in that movie.
Jeffrey Shaffer is a writer in Portland, Ore. This article originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.