The American Uncivil Wars
How crude, rude and obnoxious behavior has replaced good manners and why that hurts our politics and culture
But the popularity of civility in the popular culture may have less to do with opposition to violence, sex and bad language, says Bill Maher, host of a popular talk show called "Politically Incorrect," than with the indignities of public confession. "There is a daily monument to the breakdown of civilization every day in all these talk shows," Maher insists. "I call them galk shows. What's uncivil to me is this idea that the worse thing you could be is not famous."
On the other hand, Maher himself admits he is the last person in the world to start a manners crusade. While part of his show is dedicated to civil conversations between people with different views of the world--"a sophisticated cocktail party," as Maher describes it--another essential element is provocation, the attempt, for instance, to get creative obscenities by the censor. "It's just fun," explains Maher. "It feels good, so I do it."
As harmless as they may seem, Maher's words reveal a central paradox about America's approach to its own bad behavior. On the one hand, we do not like to see children talking rudely to parents, students disrespecting teachers or politicians dragging each other through the mud. Nevertheless, we tend to applaud rebels, those who speak and behave honestly, if not properly. We like our rough-hewn cowboys who walk into the saloon loaded with integrity but short on cultivation. And we especially enjoy the spectacle of a good fight, as the competitiveness of national sports and politics, the violence in movies and the aggressiveness of pop music from rock-and-roll to rap make clear.
That's because a certain kind of incivility is key to being American, believes seasoned talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael, whose top-rated program has been a frequent target of criticism and a showcase for all kinds of behavior, from the angelic to the rude to the psychotic. She argues that it is difficult for Americans to make up their minds about what actually constitutes bad behavior. Raphael believes, for instance, that her talk show is a paragon of civil discourse, because it promotes a cleareyed view of people and the country. "If we reflect any kind of degradation of the moral fiber of the country, it's a reflection of what is," she explains in her own defense, "and I think we represent that with honesty and compassion, and when you do that, you're not lowering the level of civility. You're presenting what I consider to be the present state of affairs."
In the end, whether American culture is uncivil or not may be less relevant than how it is received by the rest of us. The U.S. News/Bozell poll suggests that people are worried about the impact of a coarsening culture on others; they seem confident in their own ability to withstand the mean-spirited tide. For instance, one senior at Robert E. Lee, Tamika Crittenden, refuses to hold rap stars, athletes and other celebrities responsible for her behavior. Crittenden grew up among three generations of family: parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. All three passed on their beliefs about manners and good behavior, and those beliefs form the basis of how Crittenden treats other people, she says, not what Charles Barkley, Tupac Shakur and Beavis and Butt-head do. If nothing else, Crittenden has survived high school with those beliefs firmly in place.