This is why we are losing the culture war: I'm working the apparel concession stand at a college football game as part of a fundraiser for my daughter's high school. I spot a college student wearing a shirt emblazoned with a profane suggestion for his team's rival — a suggestion that includes a word variously employed as a noun, an adjective and an adverb, but in this case strenuously invoked as a verb.
I point out the shirt to my co-worker behind the apparel counter, lamenting the lack of manners and general civility in society that makes it possible for a person to exercise his right to free speech so offensively.
The next thing I know, my volunteer co-worker has engaged the profanely-attired college guy in a verbal assault.
"That shirt makes you look ignorant," he says.
"Huh?" the college boy replies.
"Stupid. Ignorant and stupid. That's how you look wearing a shirt like that."
I don't disagree, but it's clear this approach isn't going to get us anywhere, culturally speaking.
I try to defuse the situation with a softer angle. "Dude," I say, "there are kids and old people all over this place. A lot of them will be really offended by your shirt. Maybe you could turn it inside out."
The college guy considers this suggestion for a nanosecond and then remembers that someone else just called him ignorant and stupid. He walks away.
If you're keeping score, that's another point for barbarism; civility, 0.
We've all been in a situation like this at one time or another. You're at a ballgame, and the man in front of you shouts a suggestion to the referee that's both painful to contemplate and physically impossible.
Or you're waiting in line at the grocery checkout while the woman in front of you dresses down her child with a stream of four-letter words.
You're annoyed — incredulous even. But you're oddly paralyzed, caught between a confrontation you would like to have and the knowledge that you'll only elevate your blood pressure while creating a useless and unpleasant scene.
How many of us have delivered eloquent lectures in our heads to admonish the uncouth idiots tailgating at the next parking space or camped out near our spot on the beach?
How often have we ranted — articulately but unheard — while driving behind a car whose vulgar bumper stickers betray a serious anger-management problem?
We would like to say the very thing my volunteer co-worker said to the college guy — or just yell, "Hey fella, you're a buffoon" — but instead, we stand silent, seething, thinking of pithy put-downs and great comebacks.
On occasion, we might try speaking up, as a friend of mine did recently at a ballgame. When the woman next to him started tossing the f-bomb, he nudged her and said, "There are kids all around us. How about you watch what you say?"
He must have struck a nerve because she responded by turning around and apologizing to the man behind her, who was watching the game with his two children.
The father's response? "Don't worry about it, honey — they hear that word all the time."
The sad fact is we mostly have become desensitized to public profanity and coarse conversation. We shrug our shoulders, mutter something like, "That's what's wrong with the world today," and move on.
But maybe that's what's wrong with the world today.
Maybe it's time for us to regain a sense of righteous indignation when we're confronted with behavior that chips away at social convention.
I'm not sure my fellow volunteer made any headway with the college guy by letting him know his T-shirt advertised his diminished intellectual capacity. You have to figure someone who thinks it's all right to wear a shirt with the f-word on it enjoys the attention he gets by shocking people more than the recognition he might get by learning a few multisyllabic words.
I think, instead, it's time to try an alternative approach — a tactic that falls somewhere between the brilliant but undelivered lecture and the full-scale self-righteous rant.
Next time it happens, I'm going to try to uplift civilization as we know it simply by asking nicely for more polite public behavior.
Obviously, there's a good chance this won't work. In fact, it's likely that nicely asking someone to stop using profanity in public will elicit a response in keeping with the very problem I'm trying to address.
I suppose in that case I might learn some new phrases — or at least I can continue to mull over the many parts of speech covered by specific four-letter words in the English language.
Then again, it might work, and if it does, there's a chance I could advance the score for civilized society. I may not win the culture war, but at least I'll be in it.