It’s hard to look back at the cultural history of the last 20 years and not feel a sense of whiplash. Recent scandals, like those involving Russell Brand and the debates over sex scenes in movies, have cast a critical light on the taboo-breaking and vulgarity that seemingly characterized the 2000s. We never come to a steady public consensus on being raunchy vs. being reserved. Perhaps this is because this would prevent individuals, political parties, and major institutions from gaining a political, economic, or social advantage from engaging in the cultural battle.
The cultural pendulum tends to move in 10-to-15-year cycles between bawdy, raunchy and licentious behavior vs. more uptight, reserved and discrete attitudes. While it’s hard to generalize these modes of expression across entire populations, there are trends that exist over the last several generations. The relative openness and excess of the roaring 1920s gave way to the Hays Code between 1934 and 1968. There’s also the example of Weimar Berlin.
During the reign of “The Code,” filmmakers pushed the boundaries with film-noir, the sex comedies of the 1950s, and the winks and nods across other films (What did you think all those couples-dancing scenes represented?). And the censors were lifted and the floodgates opened in the 1970s. When I think of almost any film I’ve seen from the 1970s, there’s almost always nudity. And that’s without discussing the legalization of pornography, fornication and promiscuity—or the removal of “in loco parentis” from college life.
But then came the “moral majority,” the Reagan coalition, the Satanic Panic, and the earlier variants of political correctness that emerged from portions of the left. While it’s easy to poke fun at this, perhaps things had gone too far for most people. This is especially true on the margins. When French intellectuals feel able to wax poetic about pederasty, or the German government runs a program that basically delivers children into the arms of sick monsters, something has gone awry.
Technology came to the rescue in a way, driving pornography away from the theaters and into the VHS stores. And while promiscuity was still a feature of the rock-star lifestyle, the AIDS crisis put a damper on sexual openness. In this way, the 1980s was the hangover and readjustment that came after the binge-and-purge of the 1970s. Thus this continued into the early-1990s, by which time the even the rock star archetype was seen as bloated, decadent, and lame.
The late-80s and early-90s saw the first round of the culture wars that most readers will be familiar with—a dress rehearsal for 2013 to 2021. There were books like Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, fights over language-policing and postmodernism, endless debates about the role of universities in adjudicating sex crimes on campus, and so on. Much of the pearl-clutching and hectoring language came from specific sectors of the left. But it could get complicated. Most of the outrage around violent movies and video games came from traditionally conservative groups. Who were the busybodies? Who were the cool people? It depended on the issue!
But then Monica happened. People forget just how all-consuming and consequential the Monica Lewinsky scandal was in the late-90s. What the OJ trial did for race relations (halting the post- Rodney King trajectory), Monica did for sexual culture. And because Bill Clinton was a Democrat and the Republicans wielded moral outrage about sex, the wind went completely out of the sails of leftist feminism, and liberalism writ-large chilled out on sexual hang-ups and male promiscuity.
It was time for the members of the Democratic coalition to rally around their guy. And if their guy was a womanizer and philanderer, then it was time to be pro-womanizing and pro-philandering. And since this was the Democratic coalition, this included much of the media, pop culture, academia, and a portion of big business. If Republicans were dainty, moralizing scolds, being cultured meant being the opposite of that. And we entered what I’d call “the extended 2000s,” from about 1997 to 2013.
Every era leaves an imprint on the attitudes, sensibilities, and opinions of the people who grew up during that time. I came of age in the extended 2000s. So to my ears, it’s a little maddening to hear hand-wringing about this era from progressives. You wanted fornication decriminalized! You wanted traditional courtship abolished! You wanted to make loveless and transactional sex okay! You wanted dirty words to be uncensored! You changed the rules while nature remained the same! You made the sandwich! And the sandwich is pretty good… mostly. Stop complaining!
During the extended 2000s, the modus operandi of cultural liberalism was to upset the sensibilities of the religious right who supported George W. Bush, opposed gay marriage, and railed against sex and violence in the media. At some point in 2006, I vaguely remember Amy Goodman or someone else from Democracy Now! referring to “George W. Bush’s neo-puritanical regime.” Laughable, but this was a widespread sentiment.
During this time, it was conservatives who got angry about celebrities’ promiscuity and raunchy behavior. It was conservatives who were outraged at sex scenes in movies, easy access to pornography, and the loosening sexual norms on college campuses. It was conservatives who were still attached to concepts like courtship, putting up barriers to sexual access, and scolding people who “got around too much.” It was my liberal- and progressive-coded friends who pushed against taboos and the uptight attitudes of conservative suburbanites.
This is an oversimplification. But as someone born in the late-1980s, I had no cultural memory of liberalism of that decade or the early-1990s. By the time I was old enough to form memories and opinions of my own, “political correctness” was a passe fad. Feminism had become a punchline. It’s why when I hear Zoomers—apparently the most “progressive” generation—bellyache about sex scenes in films or a woman in her 20s dating a man in his 50s, I want to say to them, “You know, you sound like social conservatives.”
Remember when Vice was … Vice? Remember when Howard Stern was a depraved show host? Guess what? Bible-belt conservatives weren’t the core audiences! When I played Cards Against Humanity for the first time in 2012, it was with a group of artsy, literary, academic liberals. Programs like The Whitest Kids You Know, Strangers With Candy, the comedy of Chris Lilley, and all manner of “edgy” entertainment were patronized by liberal or at least liberal-adjacent audiences.
Finally, it was the liberals and leftists in my life who leapt to the defense of Miley Cyrus for her, let’s say, tongue-out-of-cheek performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. She was performing the song “Blurred Lines” with Robin Thicke. Remember, it was the conservative character on Glee who chastised the leader of the club for holding a performance of that song. But here’s where things started to break down. Right around this time is when the think pieces at Vice, The AV Club, and elsewhere started to change in tone and message.
Like the licentiousness of the 1970s, perhaps “edginess” had become excessive and obnoxious. Maybe the tastemakers of the extended 2000s were tempting fate with TV shows like Mind of Mencia and countdowns for when a female celebrity was turning 18. At the very least, being outwardly offensive turned into a tired pastiche. I remember a feeling of boredom at Lady Gaga’s “vomit art” performance, and noted her apparent exhaustion as well.
Part of this also came from the exhaustion of cultural conservatism. After the 2012 rapture failed to materialize, the crazy had to go somewhere. For all of the Tea Party’s advocacy for gutting the social safety net, hysterical conspiracies about Barack Obama, and the steady encroachment of a “secular, socialist machine,” Obama was re-elected. After delivering red wave elections (in 1994 and 2010) and the presidency from 1981 to 1993 and from 2001 to 2009, and buttressing the Evangelical wing of the party, movement conservatism had little use for moral outrage.
It shows how easily manipulated people are when they operate in a team-oriented or tribal manner. Consider the so-called “Anti-War Movement” of the 2000s, focused on the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. Most of the people protesting, marching and displaying their opposition weren’t doing so as a matter of principle. They were less anti-war as they were anti-Bush. It was mainly a get-out-the-vote campaign for the Democrats. By 2006, the strategy panned out, and formed the basis of Obama’s 2008 campaign. The “movement” swiftly died after that.
With Donald Trump, here was another womanizing and adulterous president who made all sorts of insane comments. But he was a Republican. Therefore, to create a clear contrast for voters, donors and the entire infrastructure of the party, Democrats had to become the uptight ones. If conservatives were the ones telling people to chill out and not be so easily offended, it was time for liberals and leftists to find everything offensive.
But the boundaries aren’t always clear. In one moment, progressives will screech about the sexualization of women in films (reminder: something they originally advocated for and celebrated), and not two minutes later will say it’s good to expose children to kink at Pride parades. Whenever you bring this up, they’ll dodge the subject by bringing up the rape of children by Catholic priests, ignoring how some of their own activists explicitly advocate for the rights of “minor attracted persons.” It’s also rich to hear liberals heap scorn on Trump’s infidelities when their allies think the family should be destroyed anyway
It’s a reminder that political radicalism of all sorts, at their most extreme fringes, boils down to a cover for either anti-Semitism or support for pederasty. Or both.
Here’s a scenario that helps illustrate our predicament. Imagine you’re at lunch with two women. You tell a raunchy, dirty joke, bonus points if it involves a woman. Internally, one of them thinks the joke is hysterical—the other is outraged. Who’s right? They can’t both be right, can they? Let’s make it more complicated. Who speaks up first? Let’s say the offended woman is the first to respond. “That’s not funny!” Suddenly there’s a lot of social pressure on the other woman. Unless she’s uniquely disagreeable and doesn’t care about the sanctioning, gossip and backstabbing she may experience, she’ll either side with the offended woman or find a way to evade or change the subject.
But the reverse is true as well. If the woman with a sense of humor responds first, the social pressure is now applied to the more reserved party. Will she speak up? Or is the risk of being seen as “uncool” too great? Again, unless she feels confident enough to say something, she’ll probably hold her tongue until she has a chance to vent elsewhere. What if the wider culture of the day favors one woman’s opinion over the other? This makes it far more likely that one of the women will speak up and enforce this set of norms on the other. What if you’re in a blue state, or a red state? Who are you supposed to listen to and believe?
One answer is to just follow your judgment and decide for yourself. I think it’s sexist, patronizing and condescending to assume, a priori, that women are so fragile and brittle that they can’t handle a joke. I also think that, except in extreme cases, most people aren’t really offended by what they see or hear. They’re acting offended out of perceived social obligation. And I think that’s fucking stupid and I shouldn’t have to cater to people who behave like livestock.
But I have to interact with people and navigate a conversation without feeling like I’m going to face dire consequences because I stepped on an invisible eggshell. And this goes for men too, many of whom are even more touchy and sensitive… and are violent about it!
Everyone has boundaries. Social life always operates under a set of negotiated rules and assumptions. Any time you come into contact with another person, you each have an internal guidebook that says, “I’m okay with this” and “I’m not okay with that.” Reasonable adults can negotiate the gray areas without getting upset, mounting campaigns to get each other fired, or stabbing each other in the back.
We need to strike a balance between two truths. You can’t expect society to be cool with and embrace every part of how you express yourself. But you also can’t expect society to share and cater to your every sensitivity around someone else’s expression. As a society, we need to become like Good Guy Greg.
If you find something offensive or obnoxious, you should be able to say, “Get out of my face.” And the offender should leave you alone. This is akin to changing the television channel, skipping a song, blocking and unsubscribing from content, or telling a street preacher or canvasser to get lost. Likewise, when you’re involved in a form of expression within your own specialty, niche, scene or area of interest, and some busybody goes through the trouble to seek you out, you should be able to say: “Mind your own business.”
We need to re-stigmatize publicly oversharing details about our private lives. Like a lot of things, we had this right in 2006. Dropping it during the social media era was a grave mistake. On the other hand, people should pay a severe price for spreading unsubstantiated rumors about someone or starting a whisper campaign to destroy their reputation—absent a reason of dire, practical significance. The differences across factions, generations, and backgrounds will always exist. We need to make them matter less from a political and economic standpoint.