Propriety

In watching a recent episode of ESPN’s sports show, “The Jump,” I was struck by the following exchange. During a game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and an unnamed opponent the Cavaliers had a fairly substantial lead when a time-out was called. Just after the whistle blew, when all play had stopped, one player from the winning team dashed to the basket and did a “360 dunk” just for fun. The commentators at the game remarked that the move was out of place, uncalled for. It did appear that the winners were rubbing salt in the wound.

But those discussing the clip faulted the commentary on the grounds that the player was just having fun. He had recovered from a broken leg the previous year that threatened to keep him out of the game for the rest of his life and it was good to see him loose and having a good time. In addition, the leap showed he was back at full strength and he was merely reflecting the joy he had in once again playing the game he loved. Or some such thing. In any event, they thought the original commentary was out of order.

I thought about this. (I am retired and have a tendency to reflect on the ordinary, for my sins.) It occurred to me that the original comments were expressing a sense of propriety, something — along with a sense of restraint — that has been all but lost in our climate of immediate gratification and the public exhibition of whatever we happen to be feeling at the moment. The media obviously prefer to focus in on expressions of extreme joy or, preferably, great sadness, especially with tears. Can we have some tears, please? Just consider for a moment the previews we are shown for upcoming shows, or the highlights of past shows, stressing violence and the raw expression of emotion. We have pretty much forgotten what those commentators were trying to express: putting on a show when your team is leading and the other team is trying to keep it together is not called for. It is out of order. It shows lack of respect for the losing team that is already looking forward to another loss at the hands of a team with one of the best players on the planet.

In a more recent broadcast, the very verbose Stephen A. Smith saw “no problem whatever” with Labron James in street clothes, coaching over the head of the team’s coach while he was supposed to be taking a day off for a rest before the playoffs. He saw no impropriety whatever, since James has, in Smith’s view, “one of the greatest basketball minds of this generation.” The latter is true, I gather from the available evidence, but irrelevant to the question of whether James’ conduct was appropriate. It showed a lack of respect for the coach — who was chosen at mid-season at James’ request, apparently.

Propriety is knowing what is and what is not appropriate. The Greeks understood this, as they saw tragedy emerging whenever folks, especially those in power, lost their sense of what is appropriate. The cautious person tries to grasp the situation and knows what the appropriate response is. Sometimes it is complete silence. At other times it is applause, or possibly even shouting with glee. At yet other times it is deep-felt sadness. The situation makes demands on the sensitive spectator and the wise one is the one who knows just what the situation calls for. That is propriety; that is self-restraint.

We are learning during these dreary days of political preliminaries how unrestrained some of the main characters are in this melodrama we are all sick of by this time. The men on television commenting on a basketball game recognize that exuberance at a time when your team is ahead and the other team is feeling the pressure from an impending loss is inappropriate. They showed a feeling for propriety that is missing in so much of what we see and hear these days. Those clowns who faulted them for not applauding the show of exuberance on the part of a player who has recovered from a debilitating injury merely reflected the general lack of sense of what is and what is not appropriate, what the situation called for — as did Stephen A. Smith. It was fun to see a man dunk the basketball after such a serious injury. But it was inappropriate in the circumstances. Awareness of the difference is disappearing in this culture along with the moral compass that points us to the high ground.

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Poor Loser

After the recent upset of Kentucky’s basketball team by the University of Wisconsin, one of the Kentucky players was heard to mutter a racial slur under his breath. While the slur was barely heard, it was the most highlighted moment of the interview — perhaps the game itself, as the following story suggests:

An open microphone and a frustrated Andrew Harrison made for a dangerous combination Saturday night.

When a reporter asked Karl-Anthony Towns what made Frank Kaminsky so difficult to defend in Wisconsin’s 71-64 victory over the previously undefeated Wildcats, Harrison appeared to mutter “F— that N—-” under his breath at the mention of the Badgers forward. Harrison tweeted an apology early Tuesday morning and said he’d spoken to Kaminsky.

There are several points I would make about this incident. To begin with, we are reluctant to say this Harrison was simply “wrong” to make the comment, excusing him on the grounds that he was “emotional,” “young,” “upset,” “thought he was off camera,” or whatever. One of the few I heard who actually said the man was wrong was Stephen A. Smith who reports for ESPN. But immediately afterwards Smith denied that it was a racial slur, though it would have been if Kaminsky had said it about Harrison. There’s your double standard: the “N word” is OK if used by blacks among themselves or toward a white player, but not if a white player uses it in reference to a black player.  The obvious profanity was ignored. Why do we make excuses for people instead of admitting that what they did was wrong and shouldn’t occur again? And why do we insist upon using a double standard to excuse what we know is simply wrong? Because, we are told, that would be “judgmental.” Fiddlesticks.

But if we take a step back and look at the larger picture, we must ask why a reporter on the air is not allowed to say or print what we now call “the N word.” It is offensive. I get that. But Bertrand Russell made an important linguistic distinction years ago between” use” and “mention.” If I use the word “bald,” as in “George Costanza is bald,” that differs from my mentioning the word as when I say, “Curtler just wrote that Costanza is ‘bald.'” In the latter case, the word gets inverted commas and we know that it is being mentioned, not used. The question I have is why in this politically correct age even the mention of “the N word” is considered offensive? I can see it if the word is used, though I would say it is offensive no matter who uses it.

But when a reporter has to continue to talk about “the N word” or print a bunch of spaces in the word (even though we know perfectly well what is missing!) then language takes a hit. And heaven knows our language has taken innumerable hits of late. We begin to realize we are reading or hearing a garbled report about an event that many regarded as important enough to talk about on a national network. In short, we have become so paranoid about certain words that even the mention of them is regarded as offensive. As a result, we skirt around the word and end up with a garbled report that is simply confusing. In fact, I heard this story several times before I learned what the words were that Harrison used — and I had to read the above story to learn that.

In itself it is not a big deal. In fact, it is a small deal. But as a reflection of an age that has become tongue-tied trying not to offend anyone, we have diminished our vocabulary and rendered communication problematic. And given that we think in words, this is a big deal. Words can be used and when used are, given the context, at times offensive. But when they are merely mentioned they should not be found offensive since they are not directed at anyone in particular and are employed to help us understand what is going on around us. And we need all the help we can get!