I’ll never forget the day I decided to become a “cultural vigilante.” I was driving in our Los Angeles neighborhood, my two little boys in the back seat. My eldest son, then 7 years old, tried out his new reading skills on a billboard we passed.
“Look, Mommy,” he said. “It says, ‘Get your ____(I’ll let you fill in the blank)___ in here.’” He and his 5-year-old brother tittered at the language. They were not allowed to use even this tame vulgarity at home, yet here on the street, it hit us smack in the face. It must have made the boys wonder: if grown-ups are saying it, maybe it’s not so bad!
The billboard’s language was the least of the problems. Intentionally suggestive, it displayed a bare-bellied woman, posing provocatively in her oh-so-snug jeans. I was incensed. This kind of advertising was an assault not only on my children’s innocence, but also on the standards of decency that our culture once upheld.
This incident occurred more than eleven years ago, and since then, every aspect of media, from billboards to magazine covers, television, radio and movies, have all tumbled further and further into an abyss of coarseness, sexual explicitness, and emptiness. Shock jock Howard Stern just received a mind-boggling bonus of nearly $83 million for reeling in more subscribers to the Sirius Satellite Radio that airs his raunch-filled program. Kids access sexually explicit material all over the Internet, especially on sites targeted to them, such as MySpace.com. Even language has been damaged. How many still bother writing complete sentences or punctuating them in email? Equally depressing, swearing has become just another form of casual conversation. I have often wondered: why are people so exercised over the issue of secondhand smoke, while utterly failing to register first-hand cultural pollution as a problem?
Living in this society, it’s nearly a Herculean (or should I say Maccabean?) effort to successfully rear children to believe in the value of tzniut, in the idea that our souls need to be uplifted and protected from cultural muck. Adults, whether parents or not, also must try to protect the kedusha of our own souls from becoming desensitized by the raunch all around us.
As a parent concerned for my children’s innocence, and as a Jew commanded to be an ohr lagoyim (light onto the nations), I decided to fight some small skirmishes in this battle against the sliding cultural tide.
The day my boys read that billboard, I called the retailer responsible for it and politely complained about the image and wording. Though prepared for resistance, I learned that others, too, had called to protest, and that the entire ad campaign would soon be scrapped. I’ve done this many times with many billboards, radio commercials, and other media programming, though not always as successfully. (Tip: It always helps to get others to call on the same issue, so the company understands that they have offended a community standard.) Once, I also recruited the management of a kosher eatery whose outdoor seating area faced a disgusting billboard that showed the backsides of four men who stood in a position to urinate. (Somebody was actually paid to think this up.) After several calls were made, the billboard came down within days.
Speaking out against the moral and cultural coarsening of a culture that has embraced the mantra of “tolerance” and “diversity” is one that I suspect is not even winnable in the long run. Still, I am not deterred from trying to make a small difference, and I encourage others to do the same. This is our society too, and unless we choose to move to a closed community where virtually no secular media intrudes, why shouldn’t we try to restore the idea that decency is a noble idea worth defending?
I admit that my children have sometimes been embarrassed by my efforts. I’m sure they wished they were elsewhere when I have complained about hip-hop music being played in stores (mind you, stores not even catering to a teen crowd); the broadcasting of violent programming on televisions in public places; about four-letter words lacing casual conversation between store clerks; and about male clerks who think it’s high fashion to have their pants hanging so low that they afford a view I never sought of the guy’s boxers.
I suppose this makes me a major kvetch of sorts, but I am careful to always be polite when communicating in person, on the phone or via e-mail to company representatives. Not only would I gain nothing, but I would invite a potential chilul HaShem (desecration of God’s name), if I, as a religious Jewish woman, state my case in a style that is rude or demanding. Most store managers, seeing that I have packages in hand, have seemed keen to correct the offending behavior. They know the rule of marketing that for every one person who bothers to call, write or speak up on an issue, many more were offended by the same thing.
“But Mom, you aren’t going to change anything!” my kids have countered. They are right that I cannot single-handedly turn the tide in society, but I hope they are encouraged by my underlying optimism, and my belief in standing up for what is right. And even if I have embarrassed them at times (“You’re not going to say anything, are you?” I have been asked at times by kids with pleading eyes), I hope that I have set a good example on how to take a stand. I remind my children that while I may be one of the few who speak up about these issues, many others share my point of view. Sometimes, people don’t realize that a single voice can count. It does.
We live in a media-saturated culture, and while we can’t control images that we see or things that we hear when we are out in public, we have every right to protest this cultural pollution. But in our homes, we can become more discerning about how much media we do consume, because it influences our thinking and our language, whether we admit it or not. For our children’s sake, we must set stricter limits on how much media they consume. A survey conducted last year of more than 1,000 Los Angeles Yeshiva high school students by Aleinu Family Resource Center revealed some astounding truths. Among them: eighty-five percent of students felt that the Internet posed problems for kids today. Thirty percent admitted checking out porn sites regularly, and 25 percent had gambled on the Internet.
“I don’t think adults care too much,” one student wrote about the problem. “Kids get absorbed by the web and live in it,” wrote another. Nearly 20 percent of the kids who responded said that their parents did not practice safe Internet guidelines for themselves or for their kids. And this doesn’t even factor in the hours and hours that kids may be watching on television.
I’m just one small voice out there, trying on occasion to make people aware that the words they say, the images they project, do matter. They can elevate us or they can shame and degrade us. If more of us spoke up about what our culture was feeding us, and if we became more discerning about what we absorbed in our own homes, I think we’d make our society a better, healthier place.
Judy Gruen is a humor writer whose new book, The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement, will be published in May. You can read more of her humor columns, and buy her books and special reports for parents on kids and swearing, on www.judygruen.com.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.