Lack of Civility Is the New Norm in America

Wednesday, 29 Sep 2010 12:45 PM

By Herbert London

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In a recent conversation with a vendor, who I had not spoken to at any point in my attenuated life, my first name was employed. I realized at that moment that I now live in egalitarian fantasy land where familiarity is expected. I recoiled; afterall, this was a raid on my privacy. But it was more than that; in a strange way this was the latest manifestation of civility’s demise.

There have been several recent examples that confirm this opinion.

As a resident of the financial community in Manhattan I remember the 9/11 amputation of the World Trade Center as a scar in my memory bank.

Those who lost their lives on the fateful day a decade ago made the former World Trade Center site hallowed ground. As a consequence, I have been outspoken about the plan to build a mosque in the shadow of this location, a decision I regard as a stain on the memory of those killed by radical Muslim conspirators.

Whether my position is correct or not, however, is beside the point. I have been smeared by Mayor Bloomberg as a bigot and compared to 19th century know-nothings and lynch mobs from the Jim Crow era. This is a calumny. Moreover, it is a breakdown of civility. If the mayor is entitled to First Amendment rights, why should they be denied to me?

It is instructive that in this era, disagreements lead to insults. Debate and discussion have been relegated to anachronistic concerns. And a mayor who should know better can not contain his ideological fervor and disregard for the opinions of others.

Similarly, several recent books contend that manners harbor tacit power relationships. Courtesy, argue these authors, undermines equality. What these authors really mean is that challenging manners is an appropriate expression of the lowest common denominator. A refusal to cover your mouth when coughing in a crowded subway train is a provocation, a sign that one doesn’t care whether he infects you with his germs. Yet what was once assumed, now must be explained.

For most of my adult life, hats were passé, a sartorial expression of an earlier generation. But recently, hats appear to be back in fashion. However, in the past, a gentleman took off his hat in-doors. He might even doff his hat in a crowded elevator. Now hats are an adornment, never taken off in or out of doors. Baseball caps are worn as rally caps — upside down, backwards, or on the side. Rather than worn rakishly, the hat is worn clownishly. Some might call this inventive; I call it absurd.

Even more absurd is reality TV, with programs like “Jersey Shore” where moral filters are voided. The expectation is that the principals will say whatever is on their minds, mostly sex, body piercing, drinking, and getting high. This is not only TV for the mindless, it is TV for the morally vacuous.

Then there is language contamination. So many people I meet think that it is appropriate to use the “f-bomb” as an adjectival expression for any deeply felt emotion. Sometimes I think that without that word, expression wouldn’t be possible. In part, this is the egalitarian spirit gone wild.

It can also be explained by an impoverishment of language skill. But mostly, I believe, it is a habit, a reflex that suggests civil discourse is unnecessary. This is not solely the province of sailors any longer. Middle class housewives, high school students, and salesmen all partake. The “f” contagion is ubiquitous.

Then there is my pet peeve: drivers who insist on being in the left lane even though they will not accelerate beyond 30 miles per hour in 55 mph speed zones. These hogs of the road do not acknowledge passing rules, nor does traffic congestion bother them. They are oblivious to the rules of the road and, most importantly, do not care about others on the highway.

These illustrations are merely a few of the ways civility is in dissuetude. Clearly, societies do not rise and fall on the basis of civility. But life is simply more pleasant when conversation is civil and people are courteous to one another. If this seems exaggerated or that I’m off track, ask a subway rider how he feels about the breakdown in civility. I hope he doesn’t drop the f-bomb in response.


Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute and the author of the book "Decline and Revival in Higher Education" (Transaction).

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