Vulgar (adj.): 1a.
coarse; indecent; tasteless. 1b.
of or characteristic of the common people. 2.
common; prevalent. [from Lat. vulgus = common people] The Oxford Dictionary of Current English
Does vulgarity still exist? Or is it, like whalebone corsets and buggy-whips, a relict of an earlier age? In the modern world, is vulgarity anything more than a museum curiosity, an archaic oddity to be preserved under glass for the amusement of onlookers?
This question occurred to me as I was reading The Friendly Jane Austen
by Nathalie Tyler. The book, sent to me by my dear friend D.B. last Christmas, is a very entertaining compilation of short essays, observations, comments, pictures, quotes, quizzes and humour about Jane Austen and her works. [FYI: It would be a welcome bedroom or bathroom book for any “Janeite” (as Ms. Tyler characterises us), since none of the individual pieces are longer than a couple of pages.]
Recently, I ran across a section on the characteristics and implications of vulgarity in Jane Austen’s novels. Since Austen is often credited with being one of the greatest authors of “comedies of manners” who ever lived, vulgarity – the display of coarse and/or tasteless behaviour [for the record, Austen is very rarely, if ever, indecent!] – is a key plot device in all of her novels. Indeed, one could argue that the ability to recognise and avoid vulgarity (of mind as well as of action) is one of the defining characteristics of all Austen heroines.
According to the good Ms. Tyler, “Ten Surefire Ways to be Vulgar” are:
1. If you are a woman, refer to a man by his last name only.
2. Make sure that you gossip plentifully so that people will know how much you know.
3. Be bossy. Very, very bossy.
4. Don’t be coy about the number of beaux you have!
5. A little learning is a dangerous thing and a sure path to vulgarity.
6. Don’t keep your knowledge and opinions to yourself. Make sure you disseminate them widely. You know enough to advise anyone about anything.
7. Have a prominent relative or at the very least a connection with a person of prominence. Make sure the world knows the fortune and influence of your family connections.
8. Have the best coach around equipped with the fastest horses. Make certain that everyone knows about it; do not trust to people’s powers of observation.
9. Be cutting edge avant-garde. Be the first person to adorn your bonnet with apricots or strawberries (in season).
10. Laugh too much, even if you don’t understand why you are laughing.
From this list it seems clear that, for Austen at least, vulgarity is the social manifestation of two things: sloppiness of mind (i.e. wilful ignorance, slavish devotion to fashion and trends, lack of wit, lack of self-discipline); and self-importance (i.e. boasting, over-familiarity, immodesty). Austen never makes these characteristics seem laudable – even when the character has other redeeming qualities (e.g., Both Emma Woodhouse in “Emma” or Marianne Dashwood in “Sense and Sensibility” are both flawed heroines who do significant damage before they learn to moderate their behaviour). The vulgar cause real harm in each of Austen’s novels – everything from hurt feelings and embarrassing social encounters to the very real risk of financial, social and emotional ruin. Vulgarity, it appears, is intrinsically harmful in Jane Austen’s world.
Is this still the case? Are things like boasting (about fame, fortune, connections, talent, etc.) or ignorance (about the world, about other people) still problematic? Are immodesty and a lack of self-discipline (emotional and/or physical) still things we should avoid – both in ourselves and others? Do we need to worry about being overly-familiar with others, and should we be concerned about the need to have the latest and greatest? Are these behaviours, and the thought patterns that give rise to them, still intrinsically harmful?
I ask because I am frequently a little shocked by how people behave (of course, I have led a rather sheltered life). To me, at least, it seems as though vulgarity – as defined above, at least – is not only permissible but celebrated in our society. Things like trash-talking in sports, the rise of “bling” culture, the worship of figures such as Paris Hilton, junk mail that uses your (or my) first name, the popularity of so-called “shock jocks,” the overall decline of public courtesy, and so on, all suggest that excess and self-involvement – key characteristics of vulgarity – are driving forces in this society.
Of course, these same things could also be viewed as evidence of increased honesty and openness in society. Perhaps modern society is simply more willing to recognise and accept that individuals are unique, and that uniqueness should not only be accepted but celebrated. Perhaps it means that people have more options for how to interact with their world, and that we are less judgemental about others’ choices. Perhaps, in the end, vulgarity is simply “of or characteristic of the common people,” as opposed to the more familiar meaning of “coarse; indecent; tasteless.”
So, I wonder … Is it meaningful to speak of “vulgarity” (in the traditional “negative” sense) in the modern world, or have changing manners and a changing societal context made this term obsolete? And, if so, does it matter?