A citizen assigned to jury duty is jailed for throwing a temper tantrum before a judge.
A college-age man violently curses a woman he has never met and practically assaults her. She yanks off his eyeglasses and stomps on them.
A pedestrian spits on the window of a driver he thinks cut him off.
A random quest for extreme incivility yields examples with unsettling ease, reinforcing a heated debate taking place in forums as various as Ann Landers’ column and the Wilson Quarterly. In books, think tanks, foundations, commissions, government bodies, on talk shows and the Internet, the decline of Western civility is one hot topic.
From sporting Spandex shorts in fancy restaurants to congressional name-calling, we have become a country of philistines, cry social critics both popular and intellectual. Whatever happened to please and thank you, let alone respect for the social contract that keeps us at arm’s length from savagery?
“This is not a middle-class conspiracy,” says William A. Galston, a former presidential adviser and director of the national Commission on Civic Renewal. “There is an overwhelming consensus among the American people that basic norms of good conduct have deteriorated in this country.”
After years of admonishing the coarse and crass, Judith Martin still hasn’t gotten her message across. In her eighth book, “Ms. Manners Rescues Civilization: From Sexual Harassment, Frivolous Lawsuits, Dissing and Other Lapses in Civility,” she ominously opines that “people making up their own rules and deciding which courtesies they want to observe, and which they don’t, is exactly the problem. ….
“Activities as basic to society as the classroom, the meeting and the athletic contest cannot proceed unless everybody knows and agrees to obey the same specific etiquette rules that provide orderliness and fairness.”
But before we dismiss contemporary life as one big bowl of crudities, let’s back up and examine the debate du jour in context.
First, consider the reactionary popular culture in which this debate is taking place. The same public-opinion mongers that declare us a rude society also have us believing in angels and worshiping at the stove of a rich blond woman who gilds baby pumpkins and spoons soup from them. To a certain extent, the deplorable state of manners is just another trendy morsel for public devouring.
Escalating this strange state of affairs is the fact that this nation, if our official trend-spotters are to be believed, is merely a herd of like-minded people. If one person believes in angels, everybody believes in angels. If one woman loves Martha Stewart, all women love Martha Stewart. If one person spits, everyone spits. And so, after querying all of 303 people, a recent Bloomberg News poll concluded that disrespect is “epidemic” and listed such appalling gaffes as serving leftovers to company and failing to RSVP. Disgraceful!
So when it comes to our politeness quotient, whom do you trust: the TV and the pundit gallery, or you and your circle of friends who prepare dinner for sick neighbors, teach children right from wrong and volunteer at soup kitchens?
Random acts of civility do appear to be at an all-time low. The pitch of politicians is more strident, the gauntlet is thrown down more quickly, the stakes get higher faster.
But consider, too, our earnestness about this behavioral crisis. The entire country is taking a meeting to resolve it:
The National Commission on Civic Renewal, founded by Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican William Bennett, recently held its first plenary session “to look at moral decline, community, and political participation in America.”
Regaining civility is the pre-eminent challenge facing the country, social critics say. To make peace with diversity. To find a way to bind together atomizing forces in the interest of democracy, without sacrificing individual identity. “We may not share a common past, but we surely do share a common future,” President Clinton declared in his recent State of the Union address.
Reconciling differences, folding into the mainstream, to belong or not to belong: It’s an old problem, a fact too often glossed over in the current civility discussion. Notes James Morris in a lively essay on civility in fall’s Wilson Quarterly: To “imagine a past time of exquisite courtesy and refinement, if not 50 years ago, then 100, or 123, is to regret a world of bubbles.”
Not that we haven’t tried to fit in. Morris and other historians call attention to the hundreds of 19th-century courtesy books written by scores of contemporary Ms. Manners to indoctrinate insecure immigrants into American society by admonishing them not to commit uncouth and, therefore, unpatriotic acts.
Etiquette is “less important than an attitude toward the rest of the world, toward human beings,” Morris says. Consideration is the realization “that you are not alone in the world, and that you (should) treat others as you would expect to be treated, conduct yourself toward other people as you would hope to be treated yourself.”
Other champions of civility separate out the question of what fork to use from what they perceive to be the real civility crisis: We are a society that allows its citizens to go hungry, live beneath underpasses and endure hate crimes.
Is the civility movement guaranteed to make a difference? That question is never answered satisfactorily, even by its champions.
For their part, the anti-alarmists question whether the perceived civility crisis is commensurate with reality. After all, if so many people are concerned about the state of our manners, shouldn’t our collective behavior be improving by leaps and bounds?
Some do see improvement. In a recent New York Observer commentary lauding a decline in violence and general mayhem in the United States, Nicholas von Hoffman recognizes “a society striving to change from a raucous, vulgar, sex-bewitched, savage encampment into a restrained, self-disciplined village where the tulips grow in rows and even the dogs hesitate to pee on unauthorized patches of green.”