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Whoopi Goldberg sees invasion of rudeness in American society

Professional crassness is my favorite kind of comedy, whether it comes from a comedian as great as Jim Jefferies, or from "Family Guy," Howard Stern or "South Park."

But as a rule, we fans of crass comedy are less funny — and more offensive — than our idols.

Example: As an online video gamer, I have heard reams of anonymous gamers spit racist phrases such as "dirty Jew" at me and others — phrases they clearly cobbled together by watching "South Park."

But "South Park" is funny. Those gamers are not.

I was talking about this with Whoopi Goldberg, and she pointed out the obvious: Comedians and the makers of TV shows are pros. It’s their job to know how to make funny words in context.

But many everyday Americans, who repeat TV shows’ jokes word for word, don’t.

"There has to be a point to it. It’s not OK just to say (harmful things) and leave it to linger out there," she says.

Chris Rock changed his act because of exactly that. He told funny jokes at the expense of black people. After a while, he dialed it back, because some white people were laughing just a little too hard, he said.

Comedy could come with a disclaimer: "Don’t try this at home." But that’s no solution. If everyday Americans don’t stretch the bounds of good taste, then life is a boring suck, and regular people will never hone joke-telling skills. Besides, only fools want to be the joke police.

Complicating matters: If you tell someone they’re uttering unfunny harmful language, they might label you "politically correct."

However, I’ve found over the years that many people who decry "political correctness" are trying to bully-silence others out of castigating cruel speech. That is, bullies have the right to talk like jerks. The rest of us have the right to call them out on it.

Goldberg agrees.

"Yes. I believe that," Goldberg says. "It’s not about ‘political correctness.’ You don’t want to scream fire in a crowded theater. It’s the same premise."

What’s more, the traditionalist’s definition of "political correctness" is outdated. In the 1990s, people were behaving politically correct by attacking insensitive talkers.

In 2010, however, things have flipped. American culture is ruled by rude and reckless people who are popular (thus politically correct) for going on the offensive. The most successful, politically correct Americans are loudmouths on the attack, from the cast of "Jersey Shore" to Glenn Beck, to Gawker, to TMZ, and on and on.

It is now politically incorrect to be gracious or measured in temperament. These are cruel times.

Goldberg would like that to change. She has a new book on rudeness: "Is It Just Me? Or Is It Nuts Out There?"

Goldberg’s run-ins with rude people have been celebrity-esque. She has had people ask her for her autograph in public restrooms. Her book jacket shows Goldberg on a toilet, while a woman requests an autograph.

Last year, one day at the Palms, I witnessed a woman race across the casino floor to follow Palms owner George Maloof into a public restroom and ask him to pose in a photo with her. He did.

Goldberg says Americans are dealing with rude invasions of privacy more, too. The most despicable repercussions came in the extreme case of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers freshman who killed himself after a roommate and another student allegedly secretly recorded Clementi having sex and posted it online.

"Someone tapes a kid having sex and he kills himself. It doesn’t get more clear than that, that something’s wrong," Goldberg says.

Many Americans only have to exert a little energy to invade someone’s privacy. They just look on Facebook.

"The good news is," Goldberg says, "people are starting to recognize that maybe it’s not the smartest thing in the world to put all your business on Facebook and Twitter."

I told Goldberg the thing that bothers me lately is how no one seems to say "sorry" or "thanks." Grace is dead. She explains why.

"If we see each other as disposable objects, there’s no reason to take a moment and say, ‘Thank you,’ " she says.

I asked Goldberg for a proposed solution to rudeness.

"If you think what you’re about to say might be hurtful to somebody, take a beat before you do it," she says.

"If you’re walking down the street, and you’re screaming all your business into the phone, take a beat."

"Take a beat" is the motto.

Goldberg, who walked out on Bill O’Reilly on "The View" last month, is aware she could use a beat now and then.

"I make lots of mistakes and faux pas — and I’m aware of them. I try not to do it a lot."

So, can she and we think before we talk? Can we exercise the decency to apologize after we blunder? I wonder.

Doug Elfman’s column appears Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. E-mail him at delfman@ reviewjournal.com. He blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.

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