At one time no visit to the British seaside was complete without the purchase of a rude postcard. McGill’s postcards poked fun at the tall, the short, the fat, the thin, wives, husbands, mothers in law, girls with big breast and lisps, scoutmasters, the hard of hearing, vicars, the old, the list is endless, all were fair game for ribald ridicule.
In 1954 the 79 year old McGill pled guilty to a charge under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 referring to 4 of the more than 12,000 cards he had drawn. As well as the 4 which were banned another 17, many of which had been on display since the thirties and forties, were withdrawn. This application of law to the merely rude marked the demise of the seaside postcard. More importantly the concept of rudeness as a social restraint died.
The postcards had been a British institution. The level of humour was rudimentary but they weren’t loved because they were funny, they were loved because they were rude. They gave a vicarious thrill of transgression in a completely harmless way. Orwell, as usual, got to the nub of the matter when he said of McGill’s postcards, “His brand of humour only has a meaning in relation to a fairly strict moral code.”
It was possible to make jokes in postcard form which would never have been said aloud; at least not by the respectable working and middle classes, the upper class and intellectual elites have always delighted in scorning social convention. People who sent each other postcards about embarrassed vicars, fat ladies or nubile schoolgirls would never have dreamed of embarrassing a vicar, calling a lady fat or made a lascivious remark to a schoolgirl, it would have been rude.
As the enforced responsibility of legal and elite sanction grew personal responsibility for behaviour within social constraint disappeared. Pretty soon speech codes emerged which developed from social to legal enforcement to such an extent that free speech has been replaced by the freedom not to be offended in a society in which many seek offence.
Acceptance of the existence of the merely rude, something which had been an integral part of British cultural life since before Chaucer and Shakespeare, disappeared. When it disappeared anything went, there was no embarrassment in telling an off colour joke or making a deliberately slighting personal remark. The concept of rudeness was lost and we are all the losers for it.
When the concept of a generally accepted standard of social behaviour is replaced by the policing of an imposed code of behaviour society is altered fundamentally.
The lessening influence of Christianity as a cultural determinant and its eventual retreat from the public square has played its part. Not everyone had been a Christian, but it was Christianity which formed the framework for moral decision making within that ‘strict moral code’. This moral code included respect for the individual as a creature made in the image of God, a concept replaced in our secular society by respect for the individual not as an individual but as a member of a community.
The concept of community has altered utterly. No longer is the community itself the determining force in morality because there is no longer a single community. Instead we have become a collection of competing communities, each determined to create and use laws to protect and enforce its position. The law and social constraints produced are inevitably concerned to change the way people are rather than address the consequences of their actions.
Jennifer Lawrence, a young American lady rumoured to be an actress, said last week that “I just think it should be illegal to call somebody fat on TV…. I mean, if we’re regulating cigarettes and sex and cuss words, because of the effect they have on our younger generation, why aren’t we regulating things like calling people fat?
Thankfully some still reject the imposition of legal constraints on language and stand up for the social constraint of rudeness. Susan Ringwood, the Chief Executive of UK Eating disorder awareness charity Beat, responded to Miss Lawrence by saying that they didn’t support the banning of words ‘just because they could upset someone’. But rather they are ‘in favour of encouraging everyone to think twice before they make hurtful remark’.
In other words, don’t be rude.