The Coarsening of America

America is in the throes of a crisis. Unlike dilemmas to which we've grown accustomed, however, it doesn't involve managed health care, free trade, cancer-causing agents, declining SAT scores, illegal campaign contributions or Michael Irvin's rap sheet.This state of emergency deals with more basic stuff -- surly salespeople, neglecting to open the door for others or darting into a supermarket's express lane with a shopping cart stuffed with groceries.In short, we have bad manners."There's just no value placed on niceness and courtesy," said University of Oklahoma communications professor Sandy Ragan."We may talk a lot about family values and the need to return to them, but I don't know that we're doing very much to instill the values in our young people."Her sentiments are echoed by Judith Martin, the syndicated newspaper columnist better known as Miss Manners."There has been a severe decline [in civility], as opposed to normal change," she said."We've had the legacy of the Sixties that manners are bad because they're artificial, and we should behave naturally."With society gorging on open and free expression, rudeness might be the inevitable excrement. A U.S. News & World Report poll last spring revealed that nearly 90 percent of Americans believe incivility is a serious problem, while three of every four respondents felt it had worsened in the past 10 years.Boorish tell-tale signs are everywhere. Movie-goers chat as if they haven't left their living rooms. Skateboarding kids terrorize urban walkways. Casual conversations are peppered with words and phrases that would make Larry Flynt blush. And the nation's highways have been transformed into a purgatory of blaring car stereos, shouted expletives and middle fingers defiantly extended for all the world to see.Some people have had enough. Nearly 50 scholars, journalists and historians converged on the University of Pennsylvania last December to discuss the explosion of incivility. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore will host a similar symposium in the spring of 1998. Even Congress, that most impolite of institutions, will hold a bipartisan retreat next month to teach its members to resolve differences with less name-calling.Rudeness, of course, has enjoyed a long and rich tradition in the United States. After all, the founding fathers created a nation in reaction against the British empire's class distinctions and stuffy monarchical order. Informality -- and, by extension, incivility -- became a quintessential American ideal.What has changed, however, is its sheer pervasiveness. A generation ago, Don Rickles gained notoriety by derisively calling his Las Vegas audiences a bunch of (gasp) "hockey pucks." That shtick seems curiously quaint today.Now, radio personality Don Imus gets up in front of the president and first lady and ridicules Bill Clinton's alleged inability to keep his pants zipped. Rush Limbaugh routinely assails "femi-Nazis" and "environmentalist wackos" and receives his comeuppance in a best-selling book that dubs him a "big fat idiot." Oklahoma U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts labels Rev. Jesse Jackson a "race-baiting poverty pimp," while Jackson, of course, once used the phrase "Hymietown" to describe New York City -- a metropolis not exactly celebrated for the resounding courtesy of its natives.On it goes. As any number of impolite T-shirts and bumper stickers will tell you: Shit happens. So what led us to become such jerks? One suspect is a familiar one. The sound and fury of mass media provide endless lessons in incivility, from the phone-in-and-bitch aesthetic of talk radio to Howard Stern and his unflagging interest in the size of his private parts."I hate to blame the media, because we blame the media for just about everything," said Dr. Courtland C. Lee, president-elect of the American Counseling Association."But I think the media, broadly defined, has really established an atmosphere for this lack of civility."Mass media's thirst for bare-knuckled conflict has found plenty of willing participants in the sports arena. Although the "bad boys" of yesteryear -- John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase, Conrad Dobler and the like -- were deemed aberrations during their heyday, in hindsight they seem like attitudinal trail-blazers.Today's headline-grabbing stars such as Dennis Rodman, Roberto Alomar and Albert Belle have successfully put a whole new spin on sportsmanship, as the term now applies to those who refrain from kicking television cameramen, spitting on umpires or giving a forearm to diminutive second basemen. Then there is the extreme example of O.J. Simpson.Now, that's rude.Still, pro athletes cannot shoulder all the blame. Tabloid TV revels in the intimate lives of people willing to confess their creepiest fetish. And even seemingly benign sit-coms such as "Seinfeld" and "Roseanne" celebrate the fun that can be had by being rude.For Peggy Post, Good Housekeeping magazine's etiquette columnist, such programs hardly illustrate society at its best."When it (incivility) is held up as a model on a TV show, certainly a lot of people think it's more acceptable and funny to be that way, instead of [viewing it as] being hurtful to other people," said Post, the great granddaughter-in-law of that inimitable legend of etiquette, Emily Post.Nowhere is the media courtship of incivility more apparent than in how it shapes our increasingly shrill political landscape. One doesn't have to overdose on the red-faced pundits of TV's "Crossfire" or "The McLaughlin Group" to see that bad manners permeate discussions of ostensibly serious issues. Look no further than U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who drew up strategy plans detailing how policy disputes would be met by "attacking personal ethics" of his opponents. Meanness is de rigueur. Gone are the days when political foes were content trying to force each other from public office. Now, such battles are considered a toss-up unless someone gets slapped with prison time. It has led to a curious values system. Compromise is derided as weakness, while the most crass politicians are lauded as earnest and incorruptible.Of course, American lawmakers always have been known for a fair amount of rowdiness, dating back to when Aaron Burr decided to show Alexander Hamilton who's boss by killing him."Political discourse has always been pretty coarse," noted University of Hartford communications professor Donald Ellis."It's just now multiplied 10 times because of the speed in which messages can be translated."And as Americans satiate their collective impulse to extol, then topple, the nation's leaders, it comes as no surprise that so many of us reject showing deference to authority."One of the reasons the notion of authority declines is because those we have to embody the ideal of authority appear to be flawed," said Pier Massimo Forni, a civility expert at Johns Hopkins University."They are not good representatives of the principle of authority, and so this certainly has a devastating effect on behavior."What captures the media spotlight, however, is only symptomatic of more fundamental social shifts, as the coarsening of America appears linked to a breakdown of traditional community. For centuries, the teaching of manners was chiefly the domain of families, schools and houses of worship. But when these institutions diminished in influence, experts point out, the result was something of a courtesy gap. "We have severed, in many cases, the traditional ties with the next-door neighbor, with the neighborhood at large," Forni said."We are, to use an expression popular some 20 years ago, a nation of strangers. And when we have the impression of living among strangers, we also have the impression of being able to get away with objectionable behavior that would have been chastised in a more cogent, amalgamated society."If so, it could explain why many motorists indulge in an orgy of epithets and gestures that they might otherwise re-think when at the corner grocery. After all, how many times have you flipped off another shopper who was blocking the produce aisle?By contrast, other drivers are not part of our immediate world."Our behavior, which can be horrible from the point of view of manners, will not be reported to others, will not be a matter of disdain within the micro-society in which we live," Forni said."There is a protection in anonymity, and much more than in the past, we live in anonymity."Moreover, a parade of technological advances has made it easier to cocoon ourselves from community ties. The ballyhooed Information Superhighway, for example, has given rise to the phenomenon of "flame" e-mail, in which a computer user can mercilessly assail strangers and not fear a punch in the nose.Consider, too, our ever-evolving phone etiquette. When answering machines were still relatively new only 15 years ago, people left outgoing messages that made awkward apologies to callers expecting an actual human being.Times change. Now, polls show most Americans consider it rude to not own such as device. The prevalence of such contraptions has validated brusque interaction, from machine-to-machine conversations to the casualness with which we screen phone calls.With communal bonds growing tattered, many Americans opt for a commitment to individualism -- a tenet that some experts say has turned into unmitigated self-satisfaction."A lot of times, people have just gotten to the point where they feel that the only way they can get what they want is to be rude or assertive," Lee said.That rampant incivility can carry serious ramifications, according to Oklahoma City psychologist Dr. Stewart Beasley."When people feel they don't count and that they don't matter and that people don't routinely acknowledge or respect another person's rights, that's when you have them flipping out," he said."They start charging at the faceless bureaucracy out there that has done wrong to them. I think that's why we see a lot of people waking around with this unresolved anger."But separating uncivil behavior and imagined slights can be tricky business. Ellis wonders if American hyper-sensitivity leads some people to mistake healthy debate as being rude. When he was a college student, Ellis recalled, the most intellectually challenging moments arose when the professor and class were at ideological odds.He bemoaned a strain of wimpiness invading college campuses."You go into a class and make a point, someone in class will disagree ... and all sorts of people in the class get very nervous. They clam right up. They think the person that's disagreeing is being uncivil. They say, 'Oh, man, things are getting hot in here. Cool down.'"And I'm thinking, 'What are you talking about? We're having some spirited debate here. We're having a discussion.' That is not an uncommon experience in a university class."Martin agreed that sometimes perceived offenses are due to an overly sensitive temperament. But she said that invariably results from a social free-for-all that trashes guidelines of civility."When you don't agree upon the rules, that naturally happens," Martin said."Instead of knowing that we have certain conventions of what you do or what you're expected to do, I'm sitting there analyzing, 'Hey, what did you mean by that?'"If you have a chaotic system, you leave it open to people putting on their own interpretations. If you agree about what is good behavior and bad, there is a lot less misunderstanding."The absence of standards can have tragic consequences. In her 1996 book, "Miss Manners Rescues Civilization," Martin wryly pointed to a recent trend of crime inspired by poor manners. Police in New York City, for example, arrested a man who was stabbing people on city streets. The culprit later explained he was punishing those who had bumped into him without saying, "Excuse me.""People are now killing over -- you're going to have a hard time believing this one -- etiquette," wrote Martin.There might be hope. Purveyors of civility are buoyed by signs that good manners might be on the comeback trail, as evidenced by a spate of etiquette-oriented books, classes and think tanks. Even the notoriously impolite folks of New York City are getting in on the act, implementing a new subway boarding system to keep commuters from shoving one another. "Now that we've had thirtysomething years of natural behavior, everybody's calling for civility," Martin said."So I can't help thinking that the desire to have it is the first step toward getting it."Proponents emphasize that they aren't out to return America to the Ozzie-and-Harriet Fifties, an era in which domestic abuse, racism and child neglect were swept under a sanitized carpet.And genuine etiquette isn't about using the proper fork for salad, according to Post."It's just a code of behavior on being thoughtful and considerate," she said."That definition hasn't changed in all these years. People seem to want to know how to get along with others, so I think that's encouraging."Even more, it might be virtuous. Forni labels an act of rudeness as a "micro-cruelty." Enough of them, he said, can have a devastating impact."Those who consistently act in an impolite, rude way underestimate the capability of suffering of human beings, underestimate the fact that every action of ours has the potential of hurting others," Forni said."And one of them is that of treating them in a cavalier way, treating them as if they were not there."Conversely, Forni stresses that even the most seemingly innocuous courtesies -- pouring a cup of coffee for someone, offering your bus seat to an elderly person -- have a resonance extending beyond the act itself."You are, in a very small but significant way, transcending yourself," Forni said."You're thinking of somebody else. That's a moral act. That's a man or woman at his or her best. You are telling somebody without telling ... by holding the door, by saying 'Good morning' ... 'I acknowledge your existence. You exist, and this matters to me.' "That's a wonderful ethical lesson, I think."

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