Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Perrier, Pubes, Condoms, Morēs, & Morality (10 Feb. 2013)

"Manners Are Small Morals"


             I didn't put "spittoons" in my title here, because it's a somewhat long word and a word that might in itself turn away some readers; also, in combination with "pubes," it might attract readers for a different kind of writing than this essay.

            I want to start out with spittoons, though, and the fact that you probably have never seen one outside a Western.

            I'm old enough to remember spittoons in a gym locker-room in Chicago in the 1950s, and a friend of my youth tells me he saw some as recently as the 1970s: in an old-fashioned Chicago pool hall. He wasn't sure if the 1970s spittoons were actually used, or were just traditional decor. The ones in the locker-room were used — and I won't go into details about how I'm sure of that. (Hint: Emptying them was obviously not something the janitors like to do.)

            What's significant here is that I won't go into details because the details disgust me and very likely would disgust you, even a macho guy "you." Within a century or so, spittoons have gone from a sign of increased civilization — a way to avoid spitting on the street — to just gross.

            Part of that change was motivated by concerns for health and hygiene, and enforcement of health regulations, but mostly it was a change in "morés," in social standards and customs.

            I've written before about the power of fads and fashion, and I'm going to reinforce that idea here, but looking more at the up-side.    Especially as multiple-antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis becomes an increasing health hazard, it becomes increasingly a good thing that most Americans no longer casually spit on the street, or even in spittoons — and, mostly, that change in behavior came from a change in morés, in customs, social standards, "manners."

            A couple more items of evidence: more in terms of what people do than what they don't do, with continuing emphasis on guy behavior but bringing in (very crucially) you gals.

            While having my car serviced in a recall, I went into the Parts Department to check out costs for installing fog lights and noticed that they had a refrigerated display with beverages to purchase. So far so familiar: the gas stations I grew up with often had Coca Cola machines. However, the featured item in this Parts Department in 2013 was Perrier Water.

            Trust me, when I was growing up, guys at the gas station who wouldn't shell out a nickel for a Coke, drank the gas station water out of a hose, or (as part of the creeping socialism of the 1950s) from a water fountain. That a trucker checking out mudguards at the Parts Department might drink water from a little green bottle, and pay for the privilege, is a tribute to the power of changing fashions, and to the power of advertisers and marketers to change those fashions.

            Now, moving closer to, uh, home, let us consider the pubic hair of my title.

            I grew up with the folklore about guys' playing nasty honeymoon tricks on their friends, with the nastiest trick getting the groom drunk at his stag party, then (de)pantsing him and shaving his balls. Really, really nasty and perverse friends — the real weirdoes — would shave the guy from waist to thighs, so he'd look prepubescent (not that they'd know the word) and ridiculous when his bride saw him naked.

            As The Simpson's Nelson Muntz would say, "Ha-ha!"

            A quick check of my local porn site (which seems to be in Holland) indicates that a lot of guys have no problem with shaved balls or what may be full-body shaving, with a couple movie comedies' indicting guys' doing the pubic part by themselves to themselves — have the shaving done by a really close and trusted friend.

            And there are women who go way beyond shaving.

            Jeff Foxworthy and I don't agree on a lot of things anymore, but we do agree that if Bikini waxing is ever forced on people, Amnesty International would be sending investigators — and women pay to have it done!

            Even more weirdly and permanently people of both sexes are getting pierced and tattooed — and posting videos of themselves performing naked on the Internet. I'm talking about more or less normal, or at least non-pathological people, who are institutionalized if at all on college campuses and maybe the occasional barracks. I'm talking about people painfully marked, performing private acts to an international public, with faces visible and school colors up so identifying the performers is pretty straightforward even before The Powers That Be start buying genital-recognition software.

            Okay, I'm kidding a bit here but dead serious about how standards can change quickly and how strongly behavior can be modified: piercing, waxing, and tattooing are painful. I joked once that next would come scarification and branding, and, goll-dang, you can get it done in Los Angeles by people reviewed on Yelp!

            People are enduring serious pain in places and ways I want to think about even less than spittoons.

            These changes occurred in less than a generation, and they are major changes in individual behavior and social standards.

            So there is hope for more positive shifts.

            Smoking tobacco is already becoming rare, and chewing and spitting tobacco even rarer. With more social pressure, ashtrays can go the way of spittoons, and smoking in public the way of spitting in public.

            If fads and fashions can get guys to shave their pubes to look like a child or porn star (or gay body-builder?), you can get guys regularly and consistently into condoms when they're lucky enough to find some sex. And until there are more elegant means of birth-control and sex relatively safe from STDs, those condoms are important for public health.

            O, tempera; O, morés! indeed; but we can go with that. People don't change much — not most of us individually, definitely not humans as a species — but our behavior can change.

            Steven Pinker goes over 800 pages on The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), showing as much as anything how terribly grossly horrible human beings can be; but he also demonstrates his point that we can do better and are doing better.

            Read Pinker on the earnest topic of decreasing violence, and note that he also discusses manners.

            We can't change much, but we can do better. Look around you and note the absence of spittoons. Watch an old movie and note how many people were smoking cigarettes then and how few now. Consider the utter weirdness of what people do to their bodies, the images they put up on porn sites — and have some hope that, among other improvements, we can reduce the number of unwanted, unplanned pregnancies — and abortions — and reduce the occurrence of sexually-transmitted diseases.


            Never get a pretty much smoking-free California (or wherever)? Never get guys to see condoms as cool? Maybe, but it's worth a try. "Manners are small morals" and some achievable changes in morés are imperatives of commonsense, responsibility, and morality. 

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