Modern sensitivity to offensive speech emerged out of the prohibition

In recent posts, I wondered about the different social and political environment of modern American life when compared to what it appeared to be like a century or more ago.  These are idle thoughts about my own impressions of what I see and have heard.

One line of thinking led to a series of posts on dividing government along age-group lines based on my impression that American politics was more robust when the median age was lower.

Another line of thinking led to a series of posts contemplating underlying causes of the persistent decline of workforce participation rates.  I proposed various theories such as the changing attitudes toward tobacco and alcohol with respect to working hours and work-related activities.  Modern economy boasts of high productivity but that productivity comes from technology.   The earlier economy did a better job at gaining productive value from human efforts.  The relaxed attitudes toward tobacco and alcohol may have had something to do with that.

In my posts, I locate an abrupt change in American culture to occur around middle of the 20th century.   In my discussions of age cohorts, I explained this change as a result of an aging population from longer life spans and declining birth rates.  In my discussion of labor participation, I partly blamed the changing attitudes toward alcohol and tobacco.

There may be a third explanation hiding in my discussion on prohibition.  I suggested that prohibition had a major influence on all society. I believe that the actual impact of prohibition was limited to a small part of the overall society.  During the actual period of prohibition, most of the population followed the law and avoided the problems.   However, this majority is not a super-majority in terms of influence of the future.   There was just enough of the population working to circumvent prohibition rules to continue their social access to alcohol.

The bar and tavern market changed supply chains to use bootleg liquor instead, often highly refined pure alcohol that can be mixed at the tavern to reconstitute appealing lower alcohol drinks.   These businesses also moved to well-located private residences.   Entry to these businesses required invitation, similar to entry to a private party.  Also, entry was admitted through discreet knocking on an unlit door and then speaking softly to request admittance (thus the term speak-easies).

Prohibition had a major impact on the overall population’s consumption of alcohol by severely restricting supply and making it uncomfortable for most people to try to get alcohol.  Nonetheless, the population that continued to find alcohol were building new social rules that transformed American society in a way that is still present today.

Prior to prohibition, taverns and bars welcomed all walks of life to enter the establishment.   There may be different clusters of patrons associating by some shared interest or background, but the patronage typically was equally diverse as the surrounding neighborhood.   Neighbors of different social, economic, or ethnic status and background met together in the same saloon.   They may attempt to congregate into tables sharing similar backgrounds, but the space was open so that table conversations would be overheard.   Alcohol facilitated this cross-status communication by the simple fact that alcohol tends to raise people’s voices, and by the more complicated fact of breaking down inhibitions for opening conversations between culturally-distinct tables.

My imaginings of what saloons were like before prohibitions are heavily influenced by old Hollywood movies.  But, I understand that those participating in saloon life did so as a part of their daily routine.   Saloons would be regularly packed with the same people.  People would recognize each other even if they never shared a table.   They can also expect to spot the same person the next day often at the same spot and the same table.  Even if strangers never directly interacted, there would become a bond of familiarity based on recurring sightings and over-hearings of conversations.

Eventually strangers will interact directly.  The introduction was probably most frequently friendly and cheerful, but I imagine that often the introduction was far more ambiguous as to whether it meant friendly or belligerently.   I imagine that the pre-prohibition culture valued the ambiguity for introductions.   Instead of careful wording to be as unoffensive as possible, the preferred introduction would involved an insult or slur of a person’s appearance or the person’s apparent background.

In the initial introduction, the separate parties would not know each other’s names so instead of asking for a name, they would use a label that came to mind based on the appearance.  That label would have some element of being an insult but it would also be understood well enough to that the targeted listener would have no doubt he was the one being addressed.

This is the introduction by exchanging insults instead of names.   I believe this was common in the saloon era.   The Hollywood depictions emphasized this as prelude for a brawl.   In practice, though, I think actual brawls were rare consequence of an exchange of insults.   The culture understood that the insults were a valid form of making an invitation to join a new friendship.

The striking thing about introduction by exchanging insults is its overt ambiguity.   There is in that initial introduction a real risk that this can escalate into a brawl.  The introduction by insult quiets the conversations of the two sides because both sides’ attentions are riveted on the other side.   The ambiguity gain full attention of both sides as they try hard to read each other’s intentions.   It would only take an exchange of a few statements to resolve the question of intention, but part of the reason for the quick resolution is that everyone involved is paying very close attention to those few words.  They are weighing not just the words, but also the way it is delivered, and the accompanying body language.

An insult-exchange introduction inherently commands a very focused attention that is lacking in a name-exchange introduction.   That attention resulted in a very efficient transfer of information between the two sides.   The two sides immediately learn the intentions that modern social settings may never learn despite lengthy sessions of small talk.

In terms of expanding a network of friends, the introduction by insult may be far more efficient and effective than the small-talk following name-exchange introductions.   My personal experience is primarily of the modern polite introduction.  I am often frustrated later to realize that an carefully chosen friendly introduction and small talk exchange in the end did not result in establish a lasting connection.   I may meet the same person or group again in a different social setting and be obliged to repeat the same cycle of name-exchange and small talk.

I imagine this was not the norm during the saloon era.   The friendship bonds (or rejections) followed immediately from the very first introduction by trading insults.   This is the consequence of that brief following period when both sides are giving their undivided attention on the other side, using all of the mental faculties to read the situation correctly.   On subsequent encounters, there may continued use of the same words but these became nicknames among friends instead of insults.  The intention for the words has already been clarified during that first tense introduction.

I am conjecturing that one of the consequences of the prohibition period was that it killed the culture of introduction by insult.   The reason came from the aggressive policing that attempted to shut down illegal taverns and bars such as the speak easies.   Prohibition lasted a decade and this is a long enough time for new cultural patterns to emerge.

The culture within the drinking establishment needed new rules to deal with the much greater risk of belligerent interlopers preparing for a raid.  In particular, the interlopers may exploit the old introduction-by-insult as a pretext to start a brawl (a real but rare consequence in pre-prohibition era) that can give excuse to call in the uniformed police to raid the joint.   During prohibition, the most likely source of an insult was the undercover agent from law or rival gangs.

The term speak-easy referred to speaking for entry into these establishment.  I think the term gained a second meaning to contrast prohibition culture with that of the earlier era.  All conversations within the prohibition-era taverns grew to be easy-speech compared to the more robust speech in everyone’s recent memory of pre-prohibition taverns.

The reason for the change was the threat of a police raid starting with some under-cover infiltrators.   There was a constant alertness to boisterous talk because it could be a prelude to a police raid.   For the same reason, there was a heightened insecurity when noticing strangers that in any way did not seem to belong.   The strangers may be undercover cops or spies from competing bootleg gangs.   The social environment within the establishment was dramatically different from the open-to-all culture of public saloons before prohibition.  Culture changed to avoid the tension of insult introductions.

The new strategy for introductions within prohibition taverns was to introduce by name, ask about occupation and family, and engage in small talk.  The purpose of this conversation was to gain some confidence that the stranger is unlikely to be a cop or a rival group.  To some extent this did work as many establishments were able to survive unmolested by the law or were able to recover quickly when they were molested.

Prohibition trained society to a new objective of introduction.  Instead of the objective of near-instant building of new friends or expanding networks to other groups, the new objective was to eliminate the possibility that the new person might be a spy or undercover agent.   The new objective had making a lasting friendship a far lower priority, perhaps to the extent that friendship-building is not the intent at all for the first introduction.

Emerging from the prohibition era was a speaking-easy culture that avoided the insults.  The prohibition period was formative on developing a culture among the more socially influential people who frequented the speak-easies.  This culture learned a cautious approach toward public spaces that suspected imminent danger from strangers.   This danger was defused by cautious introductions and small talk long before divulging anything personal or meaningful.   The social scene became more frivolous.

Compared with pre-prohibition times, the social scene may even have become more pleasing because of the growing reluctance to discuss confrontational subjects.  I imagine that before prohibition, public tavern conversations probably were more likely to discuss and debate the current heavy topics of politics, religion, ethnic differences, etc.   Prohibition eliminated this open to public forum and replaced it with by private invitation-only social settings where participation was more homogeneous and less contentious.   What little contention remained was suppressed in order to avoid giving police an excuse to raid the joint.

After prohibition was repealed, this new elite culture set the example for the rest of society.  People learned the principles of social behaviors that were more polite, but also more cautious and frivolous.   The conversations kept to small talk and avoidance of controversial topics.  This became the norm for all modern discussions.  I suspect this was not the norm in the saloon culture prior to prohibition.

I believe the prohibition experience did have a major impact on the culture of the country.  I think it had a much more fundamental impact than just on our attitudes toward alcohol.   It also changed how we interacted with each other socially and in particular how we introduced ourselves to strangers.

We lost the rhetorical tool of the insult.   I’m first to admit that this seems a good thing.  I appreciate not being insulted on a regular basis, and given that I’ve grown up expecting polite society I probably would not be very good at handling the regular insults and name-calling that I imagine was the norm during the saloon era.   But that is because that is how I was brought up.

I am speculating that what we today call offensive speech might have been a social and even political benefit that served our country well for the first century.  The prohibition caused us to lose that and replace it with polite speech and small talk.  I mention that we call it offensive speech today but prior to prohibition I don’t think they made that distinction or at least they drew the line far more deeper into offensive territory than we do today.   At that time, they simply called it speech.  It was the way to communicate in the public saloons where the social mix was indistinguishable from that of the neighboring community.

The name calling, especially when used for introductions, was very efficient at capturing careful attention to quickly decide the intent of both sides of the introduction.   As mentioned this would be a quick exchange and usually followed by a welcoming gesture to join groups.   But for that brief moment, there would be a very strong tension where there was the risk that things may turn out for the worse.

I suggest that insult can be an effective rhetorical tool.  Unlike polite small talk, the inherent tension of this interlude commanded full attention to come up with the right assessment and the right response.   There is nothing robotic in this exchange.   The response had to be chosen very carefully to be appropriate for the immediate situation.

I imagine that this had a local benefit in the saloon era where there would be strangers who would come in with the prior intent of eventually causing trouble.  The insult would have disrupted the trouble-maker’s plans, causing them to over-react too soon.  They may start trouble sooner than they had planned (when the trouble would be more effective).   Alternatively, they may respond in a way that puts everyone on notice that the exchange did not go well.  Everyone will be keeping a close eye on the stranger and probably intercede quickly when they notice him starting to make trouble.

A modern analogy is the way terrorists exploit our politeness and small talk to position themselves deep within our safe spaces where they can surprise us with their plans.   They have complete control over the timing of their plans because no one challenged them in a way that would have raised suspicions earlier.  This exploitation of politeness has been very effective.   I’m guessing that this strategy probably would have been harder to pull off within the pre-prohibition culture.

I also think this change in culture had a significant consequence for general politics and in particular the ability to address very hard problems.   Certainly, the politics of the country’s first century was very contentious and often led to violence (including the civil war).   My impression, though, is that the first century was more effective at addressing hard problems and coming up with some consensus to enact some solution to address the root of the problem.   The prohibition itself was an example of a bold political decision.

The country’s first century had a democracy with a character of decisiveness that is lacking in modern government.   For example, despite the abundance of military adventures since the prohibition, the last time democracy formally declared war was World War II, less than a decade after the end of prohibition, before the culture of politeness had spread through the population.   Later conflicts would not be called wars although the consequences would be just as serious.

Modern democracy has many problems that we are unable to address decisively.   The only type of government decisions we see today are decisions toward politeness: decisions to preserve and extend benefits.   We accept limitless deficit spending.  We avoid raising taxes.  We avoid calling wars wars.  Just about every active action of government is one that is not offensive.  Even laws that appear offensive (such as affordable care act, or regulation on banking industry) actually turn out to lack any real force to make a difference about the underlying problem.

This ineffectual niceness was not a characteristic of our democracy’s first century.   Government made bold and strong legislation that were decisive on the urgent issues of the moment even if the decisions would later be regretted.   I feel like we’ve lost our ability to be decisive.

My theory is that a good part of this loss of decisiveness was our loss of opportunity to discuss difficult issues in public, among peers in our local communities and neighborhoods.  In modern times, all such gatherings are characterized by cautious politeness and emphasis on small talk.   I’m speculating that similar encounters prior to the prohibition would not spend much if any time on small talk.  The conversations would confront the major issues of the moment and argue both sides of the issue in the same social space.   The social conversations would be relevant to the current issues.  The conversations would be productive because those were the primary topics for discussions: not small talk or trivia.  More importantly, the conversations would be productive because the culture invited the insulted into the conversation.  Both sides would be engaged in the same immediate conversation because there was no artificial pretense of niceness.

The discussions in the earlier era were more politically relevant and more productive was because of the environment set up by the insulting name-calling introductions that got the conversation started.   The tension of the initial introduction never really ever disappears entirely.  Usually the name-calling would continue throughout the encounter.  The conversation may go on without ever even acknowledging the proper name.   As a result, the conversation continued with this unresolved tension that we today would call an offensive or oppressive environment.  Back then it was neither.  Certainly, people did feel uncomfortable with the tension but they didn’t call it oppressive of offensive.  They called it conversation and speech.

If necessary, they took a drink to help ward off the tension.  The phrase “looks like you need another drink” today usually means the glass is almost empty but in the past it may have placed more emphasis on needing a drink to dispel some of the tension.

To our (and my) modern perspective, this earlier era would be more uncomfortable to put up with than what we experience today.   In particular, I would not be comfortable if transported to that era.   On the other hand, I bet their culture would have been more decisive in addressing modern problems than we are addressing them today.  For example of our recent budget debates, they would have balanced the budget decisively when the problem came up.  It could be any combination of new taxes or cuts in entitlements, but they would have decided something to address the root of the problem being the unbalanced budget.   They would have been able to make this decision because they were not encumbered by modern notions of politeness and avoidance of offending anyone.

Decisive democratic action is offensive action.  Some group or many groups will be insulted by such decisions.   This was less of an impediment when the everyday culture expected insults and offense.   The nature of speech was what we today call offensive.  Consequently, there was no barrier to democracy making decisions that we today call offensive.


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