Perils of Permissiveness

There are words that I could wish had never been invented. They can corrupt thought, disguise reality, bewilder the simple, and subvert the truth. One of them is “permissiveness.” It is too recent a word to command a place in the Oxford English Dictionary. But to insist on definition is sometimes to expose. Let us therefore try.

Permissiveness seems to be that condition of society which permits the open practice, without shame, rebuke, or chastisement, of what was once regarded as wrong. That seems to be what the new term means. Improve on the definition if you can.

Permissiveness has certain well defined spheres of application. It refers commonly to promiscuous sex and fornication. And a fine illustration the latter word provides. Fornix is Latin for arch, and the heavy architecture of ancient Rome provided many arches. They may still be seen round the oval of the Colosseum, numbered in Roman numerals; the great crowds dispersed from their cruel sports by the gateways corresponding to their ticket numbers. These arches were the haunts of prostitutes, who plied their trade with the minimum of concealment. “It’s the archway and the greasy pie-shop,” says the poet Horace to his discontented farm-manager, “which make you yearn for the city.” Disgusting doings under the archways were at least more poorly lighted than similar doings in the modern film.

“Permissiveness” generally extends to cover adultery and marital unfaithfulness, sexual perversion, the destruction of the unborn, and the promotion of alcohol among the young and the inexperienced.

There is real substance to a fear, expressed of late, that compassion could prove a major casualty in a world inured to violence. Any week’s news might show reason ...

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