The past week saw a spike in public rudeness and incivility, at least in the worlds of politics and pop culture. By now, you’ve read the tweets and watched the YouTube clips of the various offenses, right?
Most of the incidents have led to multiple apologies (both sincere and compulsory), as well as a surplus of opinion and chatter that has confirmed the central role of Twitter and Facebook in relaying real-time commentary on breaking stories. But most of all, these outbursts have demonstrated, in often shocking fashion, just how impulsive, mean, and disrespectful the human heart can be.
First, there was South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst last Wednesday during President Obama’s health-care address. Then basketball legend Michael Jordan delivered a during his Hall of Fame induction on Friday. The next day, tennis superstar Serena Williams unleashed against an official following a disputed call at the U.S. Open. Finally, on Sunday night, rapper Kanye West stormed the stage during the MTV awards, interrupting 19-year-old singer Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video, to declare that Beyonce was the artist who rightfully deserved the award.
The fact that all of this drama has taken place against the backdrop of a United States of America that is itself embroiled in an ugly and intense period of ideological conflict only heightens the sense that we are a culture going off the rails — a nation as divided and divisive as ever before.
The reviews of these high-profile outbursts have gone a variety of ways. Some commentators have come to the defense of the offenders, suggesting that they are simply passionate people who should have the right to “speak the truth.” Others have cited any number of tangential factors (e.g., patriotism, racism, competitive spirit, alcoholism) as the root causes for the episodes. But this speaks more to our own personal sensibilities and agendas than to the true issue at hand.
We can talk about how the offender’s behavior was justified because it was good ol’ righteous indignation, or how it was payback for something that happened in years past, or how supreme performers are supreme precisely because they’re so selfish and cutthroat. But the bottom line, at least for people of faith and good will, should be this: In each of these incidents, was the person in question demonstrating concern and respect for his fellow man? Was she “loving her neighbor”?
Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter’s 1998 book, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy, might offer some helpful lessons in this present era of resentment and incivility. In the book, an eloquently argued plea for a return to gracious and courteous conduct that takes seriously the humanity of our fellow citizens, he writes:
Following a rule of good manners may mean doing something you do not want to do, and the weird rhetoric of our self-indulgent age resists the idea that we have such things as obligations to others. We suffer from what James Q. Wilson has described as the elevation of self-expression over self-control.
And, in another incisive passage that brings to mind warnings from the New Testament writer James about the dangers of the tongue, Carter observes:
Words are magic. We conjure with them. We send messages, we paint images. With words we report the news, profess undying love, and preserve our religious traditions. Words at their best are the tools of morality, of progress, of hope. But words at their worst can wound. And wounds fester. Consequently, the way we use words matters. This explains why many traditional rules of etiquette, from Erasmus’s handbook in the sixteenth century to the explosion of guides to good manners during the Victorian era, were designed to govern how words — those marvelous, dangerous words — should be used. Even the controversial limits on sexual harassment and “hate speech” that have sprouted in our era, limits that often carry the force of law, are really just more rules of civility, more efforts, in a morally bereft age, to encourage us to discipline our desires.
Like never before, we need more civility, more self-control, more love for our neighbor. No matter where we land on questions of health-care policy or “Videos of the Year,” we must remember respect and concern for the men, women, and children that God places in our paths every day.