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.