Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy

By Stephen L. Carter | Go to book overview

10 . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Market Language and the Linguistics of Incivility

IN 1990, the rap group 2Live Crew was prosecuted on obscenity charges (eventually dismissed) for some of the lyrics on its album As Nasty As They Wanna Be. A national brouhaha ensued. People who had never heard the music took firm positions. The controversy transformed a moderately successful and by most accounts mediocre album into a phenomenon. It also gave the English language a troubling new phrase. Here are some of its uses in the late 1990s: A blurb for Rosie O'Donnell's television talk show asks us: "Is civility back in style? Or are people (at the top) as nasty as they wanna be?"1 An article about the campaign tactics of lawyers who want to be judges asks, "Can judicial candidates be as nasty as they wanna be?"2 The football player Michael Irvin is described by a journalist as wearing "gangsta shades, gold chains and that nasty- as-I-wanna-be smirk.", 3A newspaper story on a Boston neighborhood where many college students live warns that "there are a few nasty-as-they-wanna-be book/video stores."4 And let us not forget the Internet. The Associated Press has this to say of Internet Explorer 4.0: "Microsoft's Web browser lets computer users be as nasty as they wanna be."5

What difference does it make, the reader might ask, whether the lyrics of a song or the name of an album become a cliché? In the first place, the phrase itself reminds us of the source of our crisis, not because of its reference to nastiness, but because it implies that our personalities, no matter how offensive, should be wholly mat

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