As if summoning from a cave a dragon in order to remind us of the power of brutality and fiery exhalation, we seem to be reaching for the “breakdown of civility” with greater and greater frequency. It happens about every five years now: Something overtly rude and unpleasant happens in full view of the world thanks to the reach of modern media, and suddenly there’s a debate about whether we’re experiencing yet another breakdown of simple decency between humans. Often it’s a sequence of events, such a brutal shooting followed by some pipsqueak from overseas passing off lazy vulgarity as “hosting.”
Two quick disclosures: One… I worked as a stand-up comic for about ten years and I am always offended at some small and perhaps insignificant level by such things as Ricky Gervais’ twerp-y (middle-aged) punk Golden Globes blather and Michael Richard’s 2006 ego meltdown because things like that damage the whole notion of “comedy”, something that I used to take great care in producing and presenting. Two… our shared communications and entertainments are getting coarser and dumber, and there can be the sense that things are never going to go backwards and become more restrained.
That said we have just experienced a cycle of reflection post-Arizona shootings where we displayed frustration and dismay over the level of our political discourse. Just as that was tapering a bit, the blowback on Gervais and his “jokes” at the Golden Globes began plugging news pipes, although that story couldn’t be less important outside LA during pro football’s biggest four weeks. Still, it adds up to a lot of hand-wringing over civility in a year that’s not even one month old.
Let’s first consider whether communicating intelligently and in a civil manner with each other matters anymore. I’m not being facetious: Does being pleasant and civil matter anymore? I’ve seen airline travelers–their id’s engorged by some sense of themselves as movers and shakers–display such ugliness in tantrums over delays at airports that it made me wonder if we’d all have to fly on individual airplanes soon because we could no longer stand to be with each other during a collective travel experience.
Hand-held communications devices have added a new layer to our public incivility as we seem to all agree that nothing else quite matters like staring down into our screens. Even driving our cars safely doesn’t matter as much as retrieving our messages. Is this personal empowerment or a statement that our behavior in public no longer makes any difference? “Keep talking, but let me be completely consumed by this toy from China as I pretend to pay attention to you.”
In stories ensuing from the Arizona shootings, it seems clear that those on the scene were eager to quickly re-establish a sense of collective humanity immediately following an aberration and breakdown in decent human behavior. Police on scene calmed the injured, directing them to focus on their injuries. Some were plainly heroic in taking on the gunman and wresting him to the ground. The desire to have the healing begin manifested almost immediately. We felt terrible because however you might parse the disintegration of the shooter’s mental state, he was one of us. He was not an alien from another planet, or a “terrorist” from another land. The shared tragedy indicated that we still possess the ability to ache and care as a collective group.
But that’s in an extreme situation. What of our day-to-day interactions? If you don’t care enough to lift your eyes forward off your Star Trek communicator while you’re driving so that you don’t kill me and my family, then it’s too much to hope that you’ll move a shopping cart so I can park in the last remaining space at Costco. Never mind turning down your enchanting car stereo presentation of the F-word as song lyric. If our waking hours are filled with this kind of indifference toward each other, then who are we to pretend we’re upset when an insecure comic actor takes a dump on the dubious and deeply meaningless Golden Globe Awards?
Earlier I mentioned a sense that things might never turn around. Actually I think that’s going to become a singular challenge to our country in the 21st century: Finding the way to believe that bad trends do, in fact, go back into their boxes and that bad situations get better. U.S. manufacturing and innovation is not like it used to be but… could we rise again? Why are we fighting global warming and making “green” efforts if we don’t believe it can help to turn things around? Doesn’t our preoccupation with our own and other’s “rehab” experiences show that there is a going back, a rewind of the bad back into the box? Wasn’t electing Obama our expression that avarice and plundering, or what we call “The Republican Party”, can and will be contained? If we believe that it’s possible to return to previous levels in these sorts of endeavors, is it reasonable to assume we might contain our self-involved rudeness and coarseness? That filthy leaking pipe in the Gulf of Mexico was, finally, capped. But ultimately, to keep crude sludge from flowing like that again, we have to stop drilling for it in the first place.