Style is the final attainment of the educated man, or so said Alfred North Whitehead, the English philosopher. "A merely well informed man is the most useless bore on G-d's earth," he noted, as anybody who's ever been cornered by some droning expert can attest.
Naturally it would be an Englishman who would point out the importance of good form. Or as Whitehead put it: "Style, in its finest sense, is the last acquirement of the educated mind; it is also the most useful. It pervades the whole being. The administrator with a sense for style hates waste; the engineer with a sense for style economizes his material; the artisan with a sense for style prefers good work. Style is the ultimate morality of the mind."
But to speak about style as an acquirement, as if one could achieve it once and for all, doesn't ring true. A sense of style requires constant refinement. Style, like education, is a life-long pursuit. Indeed, the two are inseparable. Or should be.
It is also possible to make a style out of stylelessness. Don Imus made quite a career of it till of late.
There's always been a market out there for stylelessness, and one can understand its appeal. The first time an obscenity is uttered, a rude gesture made, a voice raised, an ethnic slur repeated in polite company or in print can be quite impressive. Little boys of all ages delight in such displays; they think it makes them sound sophisticated, daring, grown-up, when of course it makes them sound like … little boys.
But each succeeding time an obscenity is repeated or a vulgarity rolled out, its force is reduced until it is no longer offensive, just boring. Which may be why our leading louts are always on the lookout for some novel way to lower the standards of public discourse.
The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan is still sorely missed because he had style. His style combined wit and a sharp eye, a scholar's erudition and a sociologist's gift for observation. He once coined a phrase for the mad rush to the bottom in his time and ours: defining deviancy down. By which he meant the acceptance of what was once thought unacceptable. Like foul language or other violations of the social code. To Moynihan, it was a social phenomenon. To the shock jock, it's a fun way to make a living.
At some point, however, a reaction sets in, or at least one hopes it does. An earlier sociologist Emile Durkheim theorized that society can afford to accept only a certain amount of deviant behavior before it is no longer a society. The Durkheim Constant, it's called, and Don Imus ran right smack into it.
Much the same comments for which The I-Man was once richly rewarded now have led to his being richly despised. It wasn't his behavior that changed, but our reaction to it. At some point a culture gets sick of vulgarity and, as if it were a physical reaction to long abuse, suddenly defines deviancy up. And what was acceptable no longer is. Don Imus had to go. Fickle society had raised the bar.
But don't be fooled. This isn't a general rebirth of decency in American society. Don Imus was not taken to the national woodshed for failing to be nice in general, but for not being nice to a specific group of our fellow Americans a largely black women's basketball team that had won the hearts of fans nationwide.
The moral of the story? It's not: Speak respectfully of others. But rather, speak respectfully of blacks and women. Or does anyone think that if Mr. Imus had insulted some other class rich white businessmen, say he would have found himself at the center of this firestorm?
The selective indignation that Don Imus inspired by his ugly little sneer ("nappy-headed ho's") brings to mind the trouble with hate-crime legislation. By punishing only some kinds of hatefulness on the basis of race, creed or sex, for example it discriminates in favor of other kinds. By singling out some kinds of prejudice as unacceptable, it makes the others more acceptable. Class hatred, for example. Which is what happens when the law divides Americans into protected and unprotected classes.
Let's hope the Imus Curve keeps rising till it makes rudeness in general unacceptable, not just negrophobia or misogyny. What we have in l'affaire Imus is not a general revival of propriety in American society. Would that it were! Instead it's just another instance of political correctness.
Still, this reaction against one shock jock is encouraging. A rising tide of revulsion tends to lift all standards. American society isn't going to go from talkin' trash to engaging in Platonic dialogues in a single bound. But every small step is welcome. The furor over Don Imus may be a sign that the pendulum is finally swinging back toward decency in public discourse. At least let's hope so.