The American Uncivil Wars
How crude, rude and obnoxious behavior has replaced good manners and why that hurts our politics and culture
On the first warm day of spring in Montgomery, Ala., Michael Walcott takes his guitar down to Loveless Elementary School and wages war on incivility. Speak clearly, he tells the sixth graders of Loveless; do not use profanity or chew gum in class or answer the phone in an unpleasant voice; but do show respect for the aged, say "thank you" and "please" and, most of all, treat others the way you want to be treated. Then Walcott plugs his guitar into a pair of giant amps and sweetens the struggle to save civilization with a little soul music.
"All the world over, it's easy to see;/People everywhere need a little courtesy," he sings in an original composition set to a 1960s pop tune. "Shout it from the mountain so everyone can see,/Courtesy can bring har-mo-ny."
After finishing the song, Walcott asks the sixth graders, "Would you behave more courteously in school if I promise to come back and play a concert for you?"
"No!" they exclaim in unison.
Walcott's song is an anthem out of season, a lonely plea for the virtue of respect in a time when schools use metal detectors to keep out guns and knives, when universities insist on speech and behavior codes to stem the tide of hatred and disrespect, when legal cases become shouting matches, when the Internet is littered with raunch and menace, when political campaigns resemble food fights, when trash talk and head butts are the idiom of sports, and when popular culture tops itself from week to week with displays of violence, sex, foul language and puerile confession. At best, it is a bad time to be a zealot for decorum; at worst, anarchy lurks just around the corner.
Condition critical. Walcott is not the only citizen alarmed at this prospect. As a new poll conducted in February by U.S. News and Bozell Worldwide reveals, a vast majority of Americans feel their country has reached an ill-mannered watershed. Nine out of 10 Americans think incivility is a serious problem, and nearly half think it is extremely serious. Seventy-eight percent say the problem has worsened in the past 10 years, and their concern goes beyond annoyance at rudeness. Respondents see in incivility evidence of a profound social breakdown. More than 90 percent of those polled believe it contributes to the increase of violence in the country; 85 percent believe it divides the national community, and the same number see it eroding healthy values like respect for others.
Talk to Americans and a picture emerges of a nation addicted to the pleasures of an unruly society--its emphasis on individual expression, its flouting of convention and its free vent of emotions--but shocked at the effects of this unruliness and increasingly willing to take action against it. Americans feel embattled in their personal and professional lives by a rising tide of nastiness. And in an era when ideologies of race, gender, class and religion divide the country, says Martin Marty, a philosopher of religions who has written on the subject, it is a nastiness the country can ill afford, because it amounts to a kind of social deafness.