If what I’m hearing every time I turn on a television, computer, or radio is true, we’re living in a peculiar epoch in which the freakiest, most unexpected, downright craziest stuff is happening on a daily basis. Ours is the Age of Strained Credulity.
Everything is unbelievable! (Or “great,” but that’s another story.)
People who earn loads of money for talking — sportscasters, politicians — and educated folks who don’t — college graduates, most of the people I encounter in my perambulations — have sporadic bouts of illiteracy, employing locutions (“irregardless,” “enamored with”) that would have Strunk & White reaching for their red pencil. The “unbelievable” epidemic, though, has spread to every precinct of American communication. It goes beyond mere usage errors. Scientists and academics are probably working on this problem as I type: How did a world in which almost everything is explainable and understood become a place in which nothing can be believed?
Yesterday alone I heard “unbelievable!” used to describe an acrobatic basketball play, a landscape painting, a piece of fruit, the price of a taco, a goaltender’s kick save, the traffic in Bangkok, the amount of sunshine radiating on Hollywood, and a small flock of parrots squawking over my urban street. This last phenomenon might actually be difficult to believe, except that it happens almost every day between March and September.
Doctrinaire literalism is a buzzkiller, I know. Indeed, everyone who describes something as “unbelievable!” almost never means it literally. But even the figurative meaning is leeched of descriptive impact when basically everything in life cannot be believed. Perhaps Lorca was right: our existence really is a waking dream.
The problem, though, is how to describe something that genuinely qualifies as unbelievable. If a member of the Los Angeles Lakers hitting a three-pointer to win the game with less than a second on the clock is “unbelievable,” what do we call a republic whose parliament, guided by religious texts, passes a law that compels a married woman to have intercourse with her husband at least once every four days? Those Afghanis really are unbelievable! What normal guy wants to wait four days?
Marital rape aside, outrages to the human spirit no longer strike the average person as unbelievable. These blights upon our collective morality are commonplace, expected. They don’t test our tolerance to comprehend. What Kobe Bryant can do against a zone defense — now that’s a different story.