Over the Line

We live in a time of universal outrage. Everybody is angry with somebody for overstepping the bounds of decent behavior, but nobody can agree just where these bounds might lie. There is a good deal of finger wagging and tongue clucking, but very little in the way of shame.

To commit an outrage is to overstep bounds, for the word comes to us from the French outré (meaning excessive) and the Latin ultra (meaning beyond).  It is an accident of etymology that the word seems to indicate a feeling of rage, although raging against outrages is common enough, and convention permits us to say we are outraged by the outrageous.

When the proverb states that “anger is outrageous,” it does not mean that anger is infuriating. It means that fury knows no bounds. This is why some free translations of Proverbs 27:4 state that “anger is an overwhelming flood.” When Hamlet complains of the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” he is questioning whether extravagant fortune has taken him beyond the bounds of what any man should endure. When Christians pray that their “trespasses” be forgiven, they confess to outrages against limits set by God. When postmodernist tell us that they are “transgressive,” they mean they have stepped over some line and are proud of it.

Of course the lines that postmodernists so proudly overstep are someone else’s lines, and all of their transgressive outrages are transgressive and outrageous only from someone else’s point of view.   If they were to overstep a line that they believed to be the line, they would feel shame, just like anyone else. But transgressiveness is just a pantomime of transgression in a time of universal outrage.

We live in a time of universal outrage because everyone is on the wrong side of someone else’s bound of decency. Postmodernists do this for sport, everyone else because there is nowhere else they can be. There is no single bound of decency within which respectability is assured. There are, instead, crisscrossed, tangled and disputed bounds that leave everyone outrageous, and everyone outraged.

In his book Coming Apart (2012), Charles Murray tries to capture this state of affairs by saying that we have lost our sense of “unseemliness,” meaning our sense of what lies beyond the “limit of decency.” His examples are outrageous acts of ostentation and cupidity by members of our new elite. Their monstrosities of excess are not criminal, perhaps not even unjust, but they are outrages against what was, until just the other day, a common sense of decency. Until just the other day everyone, including the filthy rich, would have seen and respected a limit to luxuriance.

Beyond this limit lay excess, outrage, indecency, or, to draw in yet another word, obscenity. All obscenities are not lewd, although excesses of lewdness are always obscene. An obscenity is a gross outrage against the bounds of decency, an instance of offensive excess.  And we can no longer agree about what is obscene because a time of universal outrage is a time of universal obscenity. This is what Murray means by “coming apart.”

I think Murray errs slightly in his choice of the word unseemly, for unseemliness is the flute, not the trombone, of transgression. A two-hundred-room mansion is outrageous, very possibly obscene. A teacher with an ear gauge is unseemly.

The word unseemly has the same meaning as the word unbecoming, although their usage tends to differ slightly. We will say to a woman modeling a new dress that the dress “becomes” her, or is “becoming.” We mean that it fits her and suits her. She looks good in it, it looks good on her, and in it she is fit to be seen in the world. We will say to a man who has disgraced himself that he has acted in an “unbecoming manner,” or a manner that “ill becomes” him. We mean that his action is unworthy of his manhood, or his character, or his station in life. It is unfitting and to act in that way is the moral equivalent of a woman appearing in public in a dress that is too short, too gaudy, or too tight.

We would not say to a woman in an unbecoming or ill-fitting dress that her frock was unseemly, but it would be unseemly (and unbecoming) if it were designed for a maid of sixteen and she were a matron of fifty. To “seem” is, of course, to “appear,” and seemliness is to appear in a manner that is fit to be seen—in a manner suitable to one’s species, sex and station. It is unseemly that a human appear in the guise of an animal, or a man in the guise of a woman, or an adult in the guise of a child. Romans 1:27 describes homosexual behavior as “that which is unseemly” because in so doing a man seems—appears—to be something other than a man. He oversteps the bounds of his own being, and in so doing commits an outrage on his manhood.

This is the way the anthropologist William Graham Sumner described unseemliness in Folkways (1906). Sumner says that unseemliness is the failure to observe a “due limit” and “a lack of sense where to stop.” Seemliness is conscious conformity to “conduct which befits one’s character and standards.”   It is appearing to be what one in fact is, as a biological, social and individual being. Unseemliness is appearing in a jester’s costume or a criminal’s disguise.

10 thoughts on “Over the Line

  1. Pingback: Over the Line | Neoreactive

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  3. “And we can no longer agree about what is obscene because a time of universal outrage is a time of universal obscenity.”

    Well, of course it doesn’t help matters any that we’re plagued by multiculturalism. It’s difficult enough for broadly compatible types to agree to a core set of values, thus a common understanding of what does and does not cross over into the extreme, the excessive and outrageous, without cultural diversity throwing a monkey wrench into the whole scheme.

    Personally I think we live in an age of almost universal reprobation. When using tobacco is considered obscene and sodomy is not, for example, you just know your society has totally lost its way and is on the verge of complete collapse. But that’s what we get for worshiping idols.

    • In a monoculture the disagreements are over where the line should be drawn, not whether there should be a line in the first place. When using tobacco was accepted as normal part of life, people still believed it was possible to smoke too much. I grew up in a non-smoking house, but my parents put out ash trays when smokers came to visit. They were allowed to have a couple of cigarettes, but it was understood that chain smoking through the evening would be too much. In fact, chain smoking was generally considered outrageous, obscene, or what we today refer to as gross. With respect to sodomy, the old order followed a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” or tolerance in return for discretion. Of course discretion was eventually stigmatized as “the closet” and the old order fell apart. Maybe I’ll write a post on the way the word “closeted” was used to stigmatize discretion.

    • An even better example would be how Donald Trump is vulgar, crass, and has gone “over the line” for say meeeeeeaaaaaaan words but Bruce Jenner is beautiful and brave.

  4. We have lost a collective morality which set the bounds of outrage as the same for all in a given society, and the dissolution of such common boundaries in favor of a crazy-paved channel of acceptability that is almost impossible to navigate is emblematic of the spirit of the age.

    The idolatry of the ‘persecuted’ has replaced the worship of divine revelation. All must pay homage and make pilgrimage to the new gods, those which offer no clarity and more recently, no reason. Endemic to all human judgments today is the Kaliist influence. We must avoid offending others, but we must strive to offend God. That is the first commandment of the Cult of Progress.

    • I had to look up Kaliist, and I see you have used the term before. Do you use it as a general term for an age of strife and discord, or with more specific significance?

      • Rene Guenon repeatedly argues that modernity is the latest phase of a prolonged Kali Yuga or Dark Age. Kali is the Sanskrit name of the deity, in this case a goddess, of death and destruction; the name Kali is probably related to Hel, the name of the Norse goddess of the dead, from which Modern English derives its word for the postmortem realm of punishments of the wicked.

        I presume that a “Kaliist” would be someone who endorses Guenon’s thesis and borrows his language.

      • Kaliist is synonymous with Satanic.Common misconception, but the Kali Yuga is not a specific reference to Kālī, the female deity in the Vedic tradition, but a demon, Kali, who is said to be the source of all evil. This was a mistake I made starting out.

  5. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2016/01/24) – The Reactivity Place


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