Civility

Civility

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
April 16 1998 3:30 AM

Civility

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       If I offended you by linking your name to the ACLU or implying that you mistreat secretaries, then I apologize, as we nattering nabobs of niceness are prone to do. In fact, though, my point wasn't that you were uncivil--it was that too many of the rest of us are.
       If this were merely a matter of people belching in public, then we wouldn't have much to debate. I could get used to that. In fact, I have. But there is much more to it. Let me throw out a few examples:

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       1. Road Rage: I suppose before long someone will publish a study claiming that drivers were actually just as mean in the 1950s as they are now, but I won't believe it and I don't think anyone else will either. Something serious is going on here, and it's not just the occasional horror story about someone getting out of the car and shooting the person in the next lane. It's an anger and aggressiveness in public situations that plays out in all manner of petty insults and needless provocation. Road rage is often explained as a reaction to the stress and overload of life in the 1990s, but I don't think that's mostly it. Road rage requires the dehumanization of the other driver. Once you begin to think of the person in the other car as an object instead of a fellow human, normal rules of civilized behavior need not apply. The vast majority of drivers didn't treat each other that way a generation ago. Now many of them do.
       2. Song Lyrics: Perhaps you consider present-day rock and rap music with its celebration of violence, misogyny, and teen-age sex to be a victory for free speech, but when it is all over the place, on television and radio and coming out of boomboxes on the street, then it is an offense to those who don't want to hear it and to the children who nearly all of us believe shouldn't hear it at all. At some level, yes, this is a matter of taste. But my distaste for songs about gangbanging is shared by a majority too overwhelming for it to be dismissed as the intolerance of some Comstockian enforcement squad.
       3. Classroom Conduct: It's nothing new for people to reach middle age and conclude that the younger generation is going to the dogs. But just as paranoids have real enemies, those who have a weakness for nostalgia sometimes have a legitimate point. If you have been in a public high-school classroom lately, I don't think you will dispute that teachers have a hard time commanding the polite attention that came to them automatically when we were kids. I realize that to much of the baby boom generation, this is a good change. Dethroning authority, in the classroom, the family, and society is what the 1960s were all about. But without debating this larger issue, I would only argue that, in a classroom at least, incivility can reach a point where it interferes with the rights of those who genuinely want to learn something. As I think it has.
       4. Public Safety: One small example will do. In the Chicago of the 1940s and 1950s, the place that you and Saul Alinsky labored to change, it was common practice in poorer neighborhoods--black and white--for whole families to leave their apartments on hot summer nights and sleep in the park, where there was some fresh air. To say that nobody does that now is to make a point too obvious to require much elaboration. Life in public in almost any urban community is dangerous in a way it didn't used to be. You may feel that violence and belching are two entirely different issues, not opposite ends of the same continuum. To me, they are related. Mugging is incivility carried to a lethal extreme.

       I don't deny that American life has improved enormously since the 1950s in a whole host of ways. Few black people in Chicago would trade away the gains of desegregation for the right to sleep safely in the park. Nor do I want to minimize the importance of the economic boom of the mid-1990s, and the goodies it is generating.
       But it would be equally foolish to deny the losses, or fail to realize how much the erosion of civility in everyday life eats away at the comforts of material success.