by Abby Margolis Newman
Is it just me, or does it feel as if, over the past several years, civility and polite discourse in our society have utterly deteriorated? And what are our kids learning from the horrible examples being set in the realms of politics, sports, and bullying (cyber and otherwise)?
When my three boys (now aged 17, 15 and 11) were little, I posted a sign next to our kitchen table, entitled "Top Ten Rules for Being Polite and Respectful." I know, unbelievably dorky, right? And I'm sure, had the boys been a little older, it would have served as a source of painful embarrassment when their friends were over.
The list included such basics as: "Always say please and thank you," "When you are introduced to someone, shake hands and make eye contact," "When someone makes you a meal or gives you a ride home, thank them by name" and so on. My boys will tell you that I bashed them over the heads repeatedly with these rules - not literally, of course - and it seems that at least some of the brainwashing stuck.
A few things have happened since then: one, we moved from Ohio to California, where most adults - including even some of the boys' teachers - have gone from "Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So" to being called by first names. I believe this (maybe subtly, but inarguably) changes the level of respect - and healthy generational separation - between children and adults. Secondly, the Internet has enabled people to express themselves anonymously and without consequences; this has freed complete strangers (or tenuous acquaintances) to express hostility, racism or hatefulness toward others and never face any shame or repercussions. And thirdly, our political discourse has taken a sharp dive starting - coincidentally? I think not - with the election of our first black president.
The rude, boorish and downright hateful behavior of some of our elected officials, would-be elected officials and their supporters is setting a terrible example. Some recent instances include:
- In October, a young woman's head was stomped on by a middle-aged Rand Paul campaign worker before a candidates' debate (Paul was elected in November to the U.S. Senate from Kentucky). Why? The head-stomper and the other men who helped wrestle the woman to the ground did not like the sign she was carrying, which expressed satiric opposition to Paul's candidacy. She posed no danger to anyone and was simply trying to express her First Amendment right to free speech. She was hospitalized with a concussion.
- In September 2009, South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson interrupted President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress by screaming "You lie!" at the president. Nothing even remotely like this had ever happened before during a president's speech to Congress. Wilson's rude and unprecedented behavior made him an instant folk hero to Obama-haters on the right, in South Carolina and beyond. He was easily re-elected in November.
- During the 2008 presidential campaign, people at Sarah Palin's rallies yelled out "Kill him!" when she mentioned then-candidate Barack Obama; the so-called "Tea Party" that Palin has relentlessly promoted has been known for bringing guns to rallies, for depicting Obama as Hitler, for questioning Obama's birth certificate, for accusing him of being a "secret Muslim" (and so what if he were? Isn't one of our basic Constitutional principles that there shall be "no religious test" to hold public office in America?)
Beyond politics, it seems as if people in public fora are behaving in ways we never would have seen a generation ago.
The New York Daily News reported in October that "[Texas Rangers pitcher Cliff] Lee's wife, Kristen, had a horrifying experience at Yankee Stadium during the ALCS. . . she and other Rangers wives were taunted with obscenities, spit at and had beer thrown at them while seated in the visitors' family section [of the stadium]." Are you kidding me? They spit at her? Threw beer at her? I don't care how drunk you are (and this goes for Mel Gibson's racist and anti-Semitic tirades, too): alcohol is not an excuse. Nor does it cause people (as was Gibson's defense) to say things they wouldn't otherwise think. Your brain is not invaded by space aliens when you're drunk; the rude, vitriolic things you say are still, sadly, your thoughts and yours alone.
In October, a Rutgers college freshman was taunted mercilessly (and publicly, thanks to social networking sites on the Internet) for being gay - his roommate secretly videotaped him kissing another boy - and this student killed himself by jumping off the George Washington bridge.
It seems that something basic has been lost in our country - basic civility, basic kindness, basic respect - starting with the highest levels of our elected officials (so-called mainstream Republicans have no problem accusing Obama of being a "socialist" or questioning his religious beliefs, even though they are Constitutionally mandated to be irrelevant), and trickling down to many other aspects of our society: sports, "reality" TV shows, school bullying.
What is all of this teaching our kids? And how pathetic and impotent does my "Top Ten Rules for Being Polite and Respectful" seem in the face of the reality of today's mean, uncivil, impolite and disrespectful world?
I want to feel less despairing; I want to feel that our country is not headed rapidly and irreversibly in the wrong direction; I want my boys to have better public examples. So what should we do, collectively, as a society? I open this forum to you.