Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The New Incivility Is More of the Same

Last month a letter to the editor was posted on the website of my local newspaper in which the writer complained of rising rates of incivility. As evidence for his claim he cited rude students and casual dress in our schools.

While it is obvious that American society has in general become increasingly casual in everyday dress and grooming, I am not sure that civility has in general declined. Patterns have changed somewhat, but are we truly less civil as a society? I am dubious of such a claim.

Are students by and large more rude than the previous generation? Well, those of us of that generation would probably think so. But we might be suffering from what I call Four Yorkshiremen syndrome. I'm sure we all had to walk uphill both ways to and from school in driving snow too.

I wrote a response to the letter on the newspaper website. When the letter was published in newsprint my retort was included as well. I basically questioned whether our society was less civil than it was between 1882 and 1959 when over 4,700 people (most of them blacks) were murdered by lynching while relatively few were brought to justice for the murders. Maybe they didn't have coarse content coming via cable TV back in those days, but we have relatively few unprosecuted cases of mob 'justice' nowadays.

So maybe we're less civil in our words and rhetoric nowadays than we were a generation ago. I'm still dubious. Films a documents survive that demonstrate the crass and vicious language that was plentiful during the late 60s and early 70s. The kind of racist and misogynist language that was common in the 1930s and 1940s would be shocking to us today. Some everyday slurs of yesteryear might even be legally actionable today, depending on the situation.

I'm afraid that our civilization has a long track record of acting shockingly uncivilized. The patterns of incivility change with time, but they continually wash over us like the ceaseless waves of the ocean.

I could be wrong about this. I note that every time anybody does anything somewhat controversial (or even reputed to be controversial) nowadays they are subjected to death threats. This means that there are people out there that at least fantasize about annihilating those with whom they disagree. Moreover, they have no qualms about voicing such insidious dreams to their real or perceived opponents.

To be sure, there are a few out there that not only harbor such fantasies, but actively seek to carry them out. We generally regard them as mentally unstable. They may be relatively few, but their existence means that all death threats have to be taken seriously.

I do not know whether the death threat phenomenon has grown in recent years or if we are simply more aware of it. Maybe technological advance simply makes it easier for angry people to communicate with their intended victims of intimidation than it used to be.

But I'm still not convinced that we are a significantly less civil society than in the past. What is considered acceptable behavior changes over time. Perhaps the overall level of civility ebbs and flows somewhat. But its general pattern is likely relatively constant.

No comments: