Monday, September 14, 2009

The Decline of Civlity

"...I think once you quit hearing 'sir' and 'ma'am,' the rest is soon to follow." (Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, No Country for Old Men)

It was last Wednesday when Representative Joe Wilson from South Carolina shouted "You lie!" during President Barack Obama's speech on health care. Now I am not going to write about why Wilson may have said this, the pros and cons of President Obama's ideas on health care, or anything of the sort. This blog is not devoted to politics and I do not wish to address politics even in this post. Instead I wish to address something of which I think Wilson's outburst is a symptom, something that not only touches upon pop culture, but our culture itself.

Over the past several days I have read various reactions to Mr. Wilson's outburst. I have read comments from some who think Mr. Wilson was in the "right" to make his outburst. I have read comments from many more who think Mr. Wilson's outburst showed an enormous amount of disrespect to the office of the President. While I agree that Mr. Wilson was being very disrespectful to the President, there is something I find equally disturbing that very few in the media seem to have addressed in the past few days. In shouting "You lie!" during President Obama's speech, Mr. Wilson was being just plain rude.

From my point of view, when anyone, I don't care if they are the President of the Untied States of America or a garbageman, is making a formal speech, individuals should not talk (except maybe in hushed whispers) during that speech, let alone heckle him or her or disrupt the speech in any other way. This is simple courtesy, respecting the individual. Sadly such civility seems to have declined in the United States in the past few decades, and it seems to have declined at an even faster rate this decade.

One needs to look no further for examples of this decline in civility than the town hall meetings on health care held last month. People hissed, booed, shouted, and did much worse. In both St. Louis and Tampa the town halls even turned violent. While I can understand that there were people at these town hall meetings who wished to be heard, I do believe that one can make his or her point without raising his or her voice, booing, hissing, or raising his or her fist in anger. Indeed, to me when people shout, boo, hiss, or threaten violence, it tends to make it less likely that their voice will be heard. I know that I am much more willing to listen to someone who is well spoken and polite than someone who is in my face shouting, even if I disagree with them. This is natural. People will listen to others who respect them; they will not listen to those who disrespect them. Shouting, booing, hissing, and threatening violence are all signs of disrespect.

Of course, what really disturbs me about Mr. Wilson's outburst is that he is from South Carolina. While I believe civility has declined across all of the United States, I always thought that its decline had been much slower here in the South. Growing up in an area called "Little Dixie," I was trained by my godmother and my mother's other friends to be a perfect gentleman. I was taught to call people "Sir" and "Ma'am," to never raise my voice, and to generally treat everyone with respect. Even today this has not changed much where I live--I get addressed as "sir" on almost a daily basis. Mr. Wilson's outburst then makes me wonder two things. The first is whether Mr. Wilson's parents simply didn't raise him right. The second is much more frightening to me--that civility has declined in the South so much that even Congressmen have dispensed with it! Maybe pretty soon I won't be hearing "Sir" and "Ma'am" much around Little Dixie.

Of course, politics in the United States have always been volatile, and people have been impolite at political gatherings almost since the founding of the nation. Perhaps one cannot use Mr. Wilson's outburst at President Obama's speech or the shenanigans at the town halls of last month as signs that civility in this nation is on the decline. Sadly, I have noticed it in venues beyond politics, and I am sure most of us have. All of us, at some time or another, have probably been at a store only to witness some boor dressing down a poor clerk, who obviously does not deserve such treatment. And I am sure we have all witnessed similar scenes in restaurants, at filling stations, and other places.

We have even witnessed rudeness on live television. An incident which just occurred last night is an example of this. Reportedly, at the MTV Video Awards, as Taylor Swift was making her acceptance speech for her first ever MTV Video Award, Kayne West grabbed the microphone from her and announced his love for one of Beyonce's videos. Granted, Mr. West did tell Miss Swift that he was happy for her, but that did not mean what his actions were not rude. He not only interrupted Miss Swift, but he did so during a moment that may well have been very important to her. Granted, perhaps we should not expect civility at the MTV Video Awards, but then we should not expect something so rude as someone interrupting another's acceptance speech either!

Indeed, even officers of the law are not immune to people being rude to them. I remember the old woman in Austin, Texas who was tased by a deputy constable back in May. Before she was even tased, she used the sort of language on the constable that would have gotten my mouth washed out with soap as a child. While a great deal was made of the old woman being tased, it rather bothered me that no one commented on the foul language she used on him and the disrespect she showed him. That no one noticed the woman's behaviour makes me think civility has declined so rapidly in this country that we are now taking rudeness for granted.

While it does seem to be rapidly declining in this country, I think the truth is that civility is necessary to our society. The simple fact is that rudeness almost uniformly results in a negative reaction from the victim of that rudeness. At the very least the individual who is the victim of rudeness will tend to stop listening to anything the individual who is being rude has to say. At the very worst the victim of rudeness will simply shout back or even resort to violence. Either of these reactions will seriously hinder any communication between individuals. What is more, rudeness does not simply have an impact on victims of rudeness, but even on innocent bystanders. A recent study discovered that witnessing rudeness reduced the performance of innocent bystanders on both routine tasks and creative tasks. This would seem to be detrimental in any workplace, including the halls of Congress.

Our country was founded not only on the principle that all men were created equal, but that all men are deserving of respect. Sadly, the past several years have seen a decline in such respect being offered to individuals. Not only are the days when across the nation people were routinely addressed as "sir" and "ma'am" gone, but it seems we are moving towards a time when it will be perfectly acceptable for individuals to shout at, swear at, and otherwise abuse others. I fear that when that day comes, it may well be the beginning of the end.


Holte Ender said...

The first place I lived in the United States, was Northwest Missouri and I was shocked how nice people were to each other. I had never been called "Sir" so many times in my life. After a short time I was "Sir-ing" and "Maam-ing" just like the locals.

I believe part of the reason for the loss of civility is the Internet. So many things can be said in anonymity, your internet name and mine are probably made up, well mine is, and I must admit I am a little guilty of disrespect to public figures, but I can honestly say, if I ever met them in real life, I would draw on my Missouri roots, and I would give them the respect I do not give them on my blog.

Raquel Stecher said...

I agree with the fact that there is a decline in civility in the United States. But I think I took this incident with a big grain of salt because of something I saw a couple of years ago. I think it was Prime Minister Tony Blair was in Parliament and the discussion was centered around UK's involvement in the war in Iraq and the progress of that war. Tony Blair was defending himself and people were shouting, hissing, booing and interupting him the whole time. From what I understand, this is pretty standard especially when the discussion is a pretty heated one.

I was fascinated by this! These people were throwing their hearts and souls into the matter and weren't afraid to shout. While civility is admirable, I think showing one's passion is also admirable.

I'm not disagreeing with you but I think it's interesting to see the other side of this too. Especially since America still has the reputation (in Europe for sure) of being a bit puritan and stuck up.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I think you may be right, Holte. A lot of the loss of civility of late could be due to the internet. After all, one can be fairly anonymous online and say what one pleases, regardless of whether it is rude. It could be that some people are simply letting their behaviour on the net be a part of their daily life in the real world as well!

Raquelle, I have to admit in some ways one does have to take the incident in Congress with a grain of salt. As I said, at least in the States people have been rude at political gatherings from the beginning. And I must admit, that like you, I like the idea of being passionate about what they believe in. Ultimately, however, I think that one can be passionate without being rude. In fact, while politics is the one sphere of life where rudeness has been tolerated to some degree or another, I have to wonder if it isn't the sphere of life where civility isn't needed most. I mean, too often harsh words simply hinders debates of important topics.

Thomas Pluck said...

I think we are all becoming very self-absorbed. This is an excellent article on the real problem with this Joe Wilson buffoon, and Jimmy Carter is just distracting us from the debate. Though perhaps Mr. Wilson wouldn't breach decorum if it had been Bill Clinton up there. I doubt it.

I was at a play in NYC last night and while people were mostly quiet during it- It was Othello, with a spin on the Sotomayor hearings- some older woman were making loud reactions. A tsk here, a chuckle there. I wonder if she had Tourette's. In the atrium, people were absorbed in their cell phones, playbills, and imaginations, bumping into you if you weren't looking, and wandering like zombies.

Rudeness is something I never tolerate, but discourtesy and self-absorption are increasingly common in American society. It infuriates me that people suggesting we return to "old fashioned values" don't even know how to be civil.