A citizen assigned to jury duty is jailed for throwing a temper tantrum before a judge.
In a pre-med lecture, students chide their teacher for speaking too fast.
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 in Baltimore yields examples with unsettling ease, reinforcing a heated debate taking place in forums as various as Ann Landers 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 Bloomberg News poll released last month 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?
For that matter, if you do happen to believe in angels and Martha Stewart, how boorish could you possibly be?
On a more sober plane, 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."
A family in New England donated $35 million to establish an Institute for a Civil Society.
The National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, run by Lamar Alexander and other conservatives, encourages private giving within communities.
The president of the University of Pennsylvania heads the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community.
What these entities ultimately accomplish may be academic; but their mere existence should give doomsayers cause for hope. As long as there are meetings, commissions, committees, clubs, associations and conventions, we can feel confident the American way is not entirely lost to barbarism.
Writing centuries apart, Alexis de Tocqueville and historian Max Lerner both noted that the "principle of association" is crucial in America. We are a nation of joiners. Belonging is important, and it is through clubs and associations that "the sense of community comes closest to being achieved. Through them also the idea of neighborhood has been re-created in America," Lerner wrote 40 years ago in "America as a Civilization."
Lerner, however, saw a fly in the ointment: diversity. He speaks of the "atomizing forces" that entered American society, making it impossible to live a homogeneous and well-behaved life: "The diverse immigration and the mingling of races and religions meant group differences in ways of thought and living, and tensions pulling apart the society."
Opportunity for all
America's founding premise of opportunity for all was originally designed for a fairly homogeneous populace with goals and dreams more similar than different, Lerner said. But waves and waves of immigrants taking the United States up on the offer of religious freedom and equality, as well as slavery and its aftermath, obliterated notions of uniform propriety. There are too many competing interests among too many races, cultures, faiths and creeds to expect a genteel common ground.
Regaining civility at this sounding 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 last 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."
Gentility in America
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.
This obsession with appearances tied in neatly with capitalism. "Gentility gave Americans a reason to buy the goods that capitalism produced, and capitalism in turn democratized gentility by turning out and energetically promoting affordable versions of the goods that genteel living required," writes Richard L. Bushman in another Wilson Quarterly civility essay.
But as consumer society spiraled out of control, the practice of purchasing respectability backfired. We live "in thrall to this culture of acquisitiveness," suggests Morris, now vice president of the Council on Library Resources. Instead of affording a sense of belonging, capitalism and insidious advertising ploys have instilled an indecorous sense of greed across the demographic spectrum.
Michael Jordan is as revered for commanding more than $30 million a year as he is for his talent. A grieving Fred Goldman signs a lucrative book deal to write about his murdered son. Political adviser Dick Morris gets $2.5 million to chronicle his fall from grace.
Public moves like these have put civilization on the ropes.
To be really cynical, look at all the people getting rich off the civility drama. "It seems we may live in a society that has almost forgotten the glory of what it means to be human. We are in need of healing," laments bazillionaire M. Scott "The Road Less Traveled" Peck in his 1993 civics lesson, "A World Waiting to be Born: Civility Rediscovered."
You are not alone
But keeping up with the Joneses is not the brand of civility currently under discussion by thoughtful social critics who remember the Golden Rule. 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.
The solution, according to Jim Wallis, author of "Who Speaks for God?: An Alternative to the Religious Right -- A New Politics of Compassion, Community, and Civility," is to trust in those very institutions that de Tocqueville and Lerner linked with the American character. Civil society depends on "institutions of family, school, neighborhood, voluntary associations, churches, synagogues, etc," Wallis writes.
"Most Americans want a 'civil society' characterized by the values of integrity, honesty, responsibility, fairness, openness, and, above all, genuine citizen involvement," Wallis says. "Civility means more than the quality of our public discourse -- it requires the participation of the citizenry in shaping the political direction of the country."
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."
And true stories like this one keep us hopeful:
Baltimore restaurateur Nancy Longo, witness to the name-calling vignette documented above, also occasionally witnesses public acts of great humanity. Such as the time a well-educated homeless man, with holes in his socks and shoes, came into her Pierpoint restaurant.
He was "very charming," and a table of diners took a shine to him, Longo remembers. Soon, he was among them, dining at their expense.
Skeptics, hold that image.
Pub Date: 2/17/97