Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The End of Civility in America

It has been coming for some time now. As an educator I have noticed the increase in tolerance for bad behavior among our children. Incivility has slowly and consistently increased as the tolerance for uncivil behavior has increased over time.

And now their parents may be taking a lesson from their children.

But for different reasons that lie at different ends of a spectrum.

At one end, we see that children are uncivil to each other because it is widely viewed as “being cool.”

At the other end we see two-year olds being uncivil to their parents in erupting in a temper tantrum simply in order to get some attention.

Where do we adults find ourselves in this spectrum? Unfortunately right around the latter, with the two-year olds.

Where adult incivility all began is up for debate, but where it became most apparent to me was during the town hall meetings of August, something that I have labeled the Angst of August. It was there that we saw the first obvious cases of adults behaving childishly.

Shouting down opposition.


Making wild false charges that they know to be inaccurate (this used to be called lying).

In the end, this was not to make a political point. Not to control the message. It was to get attention to your side.

To get the attention of the media.

And boy, oh boy did that ever work.

It worked so well that Congressman Joe Wilson (R – Racist Redneck) is now famous, and some would say infamous, for shouting “You lie” at his president as he was addressing a joint session of congress. He got hundreds of inches of press. He got to twitter about it and be quoted on TV over and over again. He got to be interviewed on Fixed News.

And he got a million dollars from racist rednecks from coast to coast.

Lesson: incivility succeeds.

So despite the House resolution to “disapprove” Joe Wilson’s action, a resolution that we now see got all Democratic congressmen to vote for it, less 12, and all Republicans to vote against it, less 7, Joe Wilson escapes virtually unscathed with a resolution of rebuke towards him falling very nearly along party lines.

And with all of that money, and all of that press.

Incivility succeeds.

Want more evidence that incivility is becoming the rule rather than the exception in our society?

What about the rapper Kanye West who interrupted the acceptance speech of Country singer Tanya Swift at the VMA awards the other night? This uncivil man dismissed the winner’s victory as a lie without using the “L” word. The lie being that “BeyoncĂ© had one of the best videos of all time.”

Yes, he later apologized, but the apology was somewhat self-aggrandizing with him comparing himself to Ben Stiller’s character in Meet the Parents. Excuse me, but Ben Stiller’s character was always well-meaning and his actions constantly misinterpreted. This was not the case with West’s uncivil behavior. West was being a dirtbag and no one misinterpreted his meaning.

But guess what? Kanye West got to be on Jay Leno’s new comedy show because of his uncivil behavior.

He got some attention, just like a two-year old would in a temper tantrum.

What about tennis star Serena Williams? She took umbrage at a line judge’s call and laid into her with massive usage of that very bad word (fortunately you can’t really hear it in the clip I link to). Williams behaved badly and got lots of media coverage for it.

Perhaps she will get to do an AMEX commercial after she retires just like John McEnroe did.

Incivility succeeds. Incivility sells.

Incivility, I fear, is here to stay unless we ignore these media-greedy jerkwads and withhold our approval, our attention, and our dollars from them.


geri said...

Sometimes your prose make me laugh, sometimes they make me take a new point of view, sometimes they make me ponder a new question. This time.... your words matched my sentiment so closely, it felt like my utterances must have echoed as I voiced them aloud to none other than myself!

Brenda said...

Your examples of famous people behaving with incivility highlights the issue in the mass media, but the true underlying issue of incivility in America is the complete lack of respect for others and the mindset that a win-lose scenario where I win and you lose is acceptable.

The examples of this are rampant in corporate America where executives play out their personal agendas for individual wealth and benefit at the expense of everyone else, including the shareholders. There are plenty of examples millions of people can share. Here are some from my experience:

1. On announcing a downsizing, walking employees out the door without warning and no opportunity to say a proper goodbye to colleagues - the company having a complete distrust in the professionals being laid off for fear they will take sensitive information. Everyone being walked out is a potential criminal in HR's mind. The practice of walking people out the door is also a hostile act towards the remaining staff.

2. On a merger, staging a global show to employees complete with fireworks, a party, and beaming incompetent executives left in place to bring the merged company down while the competent managers are eliminated - most often because the incompetent managers are masters at "managing perceptions" with their superiors. It is demoralizing to the organization when executives do not take into consideration the actual results and contributions of an employee to determine who is competent and who is not - people quickly get the message that you don't have to produce anything, just manage the perception that you're contributing.

3. The disrespectful way job seekers are treated by recruiters today. That laid off person is already feeling bad - don't add to the already low self-esteem with rudeness.

4. The win-lose attitude and hostile interactions that take place in business-to-business communications.

It's the daily incivility that gets me down more than what celebrities do.

My mother has an expression - "the fish stinks from the head" - having leaders demonstrate civility is the only way this trend will change.