The three Ds: debased, degraded, and decadent

(Well, it’s about lexical semantics and the conventions of social life, but there will be, right at the outset, dips into references to mansex in very plain language, so not suitable for kids or the sexually modest.)

It started with my 12/29/19 posting “The time of mildly debasing oneself”, about one of Nathan W. Pyle’s weirdly quirky Strange Planet cartoons looking forward to New Year’s Day:

(#1)  “Until then I will mildly debase myself” — “To maximize contrast”

To which Tim Evanson replied, on Facebook, lewdly:

“I used the much thicker dildo, but not the longer-and-thicker dildo. So I only mildly debased myself.” I guess that’s how it works.

I’m a slut, but moderation in all things: when I go out to play, I’ll service only one cock, just mildly debase myself.

(Autobiographical digression: back in my wild days, long ago, I rarely stopped at just one, at least for sucking cock: a routine for many men having (semi-)public sex was to suck off two or three guys in a row, then give your cock to another guy in the midst of doing this very routine. We were all in this together. (Getting fucked was more complicated; once was very often just perfect.))

(#2) See my 5/22/18 posting “(I just) can’t stop (it)”, with a section on snack food addictions, and on the Lay’s potato chop slogan “Betcha Can’t Eat Just One”

Why is #1 so funny? Because being debased is not usually conceived of as a scalar property. One misstep, and you’ve been debased: the fatal glass of wine,  one sexual transgression, whatever. (I guess I should add that I never understood my sexual adventures as debasement — actually, more like celebration and affirmation.)

The verb debase. From NOAD:

verb debase: [with object] [a] reduce (something) in quality or value; degrade: the love episodes debase the dignity of the drama. [b] lower the moral character of (someone): war debases people.

It’s the b sense that’s relevant here. Similarly in OED2, with more detail, where the relevant entry is in 3a:

†1.  transitive. To lower in position, rank, or dignity; to abase. Obsolete. [1st cite 1569]
†2. To lower in estimation; to decry, depreciate, vilify. Obsolete. [1st cite 1565]
3. a. To lower in quality, value, or character; to make base, degrade; to adulterate. [1st cite 1591]
b. spec.To lower the value of (coin) by the mixture of alloy or otherwise; to depreciate. [1st cite 1602]

The question is how moral character could be lowered by degrees. Not hard to imagine; you could come slowly to accept practices of dubious morality in others, perhaps because they provide you with some sort of benefit or advantage, and you might then adopt some of these practices on your own. The result would be a slow erosion of your moral character, such as is seen in the rise of many authoritarian regimes. Any one shift could be small, but the accumulated effect could be devastating.

Indeed, this is the view taken by the Economist magazine in its 10/15/16 issue, with this cover:


The leader: “The debasing of American politics: Healthy democracies depend on unwritten rules. The Republican nominee has trampled all over them”, beginning:

HOW do people learn to accept what they once found unacceptable? In 1927 Frederic Thrasher published a “natural history” of 1,313 gangs in Chicago. Each of them lived by a set of unwritten rules that had come to make sense to gang members but were still repellent to everyone else. So it is with [REDACTED] and many of his supporters. By normalising attitudes that, before he came along, were publicly taboo, [REDACTED] has taken a knuckle-duster to American political culture.

Still, for acts rather than attitudes, we’re inclined to see to debase as roughly equivalent to to corrupt: ’cause to become morally depraved’ (NOAD)), specifically cause to engage in an immoral act (from which there is no turning back). As in the 2019 Victorian BDSM erotica by Anna Austin, Debasing Her Innocence, with the publisher’s description:

Sally has made a terrible mistake. She has trespassed on private property, losing her way and stumbling onto the estates of two young Lords.

(#1) The book cover

And the punishment they choose? To debase’s Sally’s innocence. They will use her young body to satisfy their depraved lusts, leaving her frightened, excited, and by the end – begging for more!

The verb degrade. This one is fairly straightforwardly scalar, in the 1b sense in this NOAD entry as applied to huan beings:

verb degrade:  [with object]1 [a] treat or regard (someone) with contempt or disrespect: she thought that many supposedly erotic pictures degraded women. [b] lower the character or quality of: repeaters clean up and amplify the degraded signal. … 2 [a] break down or deteriorate chemically: the bacteria will degrade hydrocarbons | [no object]: when exposed to light the materials will degrade. …

Human and inanimate uses of 1b can collide to produce an entertaining  ambiguity, as in a series of ads for Legacybox, a system for transferring visual records to digital form to preserve them. They reassure you that they are prepared to deal

with videotapes, film reels or photos that are degrading

(One example here.) I have tons of photos that would conventionally be regarded as degrading in the sense of exhibiting poor moral qualities. But then I don’t think of men’s naked bodies or flagrant mansex as degrading at all. Any more than I think of standard “dirty words” as degrading.

The adjective decadent. Corresponding to the noun decadence, which labels an extraordinarily culture-bound concept. From NOAD:

noun decadence: [a] moral or cultural decline as characterized by excessive indulgence in pleasure or luxury: he denounced Western decadence. [b] luxurious self-indulgence: “French” connotes richness and decadence, and that’s the idea of this ice cream.

Here I have to confess deep ignorance as to the cultural history of the DECADENCE concept, though I do know that it’s long and complicated. I understand that there’s a conventional opposition between decadence and restraint (as in NOAD‘s a entry), between what it often configured as abandonment to the senses and unconstrained license (seen as selfish loss of control) vs. guidance by rationality and public responsibility.

There’s a profound distrust of sensory pleasures, of our animal natures, in this. But of course anything in excess is problematic, and that includes the regulation of conduct by general principles.



One Response to “The three Ds: debased, degraded, and decadent”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    A Facebook comment from Tim Evanson:

    What, no diseased??

    To which I replied:

    In threes, man, in threes

    Bewitched, Bothered, and Bemildred, and all that.

    Not to mention Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego, and much, much more.

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