On November 28 a Wal Mart worker in Valley Stream, New York was trampled to death by "consumers gone wild."
The event was so horrifying that it captured the public imagination, eliciting numerous interpretations. Among the best was Kirsten Powers' suggestion that the incident bespoke a crisis in American civility. Link here.
As I was reading her article I recalled that someone somewhere once stated that the British had invented civilization when they learned to stand in line and wait their turn. Thus, to queue up.
I could not find the original quote, but I did find the following in a website called "OK in UK." Offering advice to tourists visiting Britain, the site said:
"To many Brits a queue is simply what defines a civilization, and anyone who attempts to push their way to the front of the queue is made to feel about as welcome as a fox in a chicken coop. In fact, there is no faster way to bring a Brit to the brink of apoplectic rage than by queue jumping."
In a civilized world people wait their turn. At Wal Mart, on black Friday, shoppers are so drunk at the chance, as Powers says, to get their hands on some "discounted lip gloss," that they trample anyone who gets in their way.
How did we get to this point?
Powers quotes Dr. Keith Ablow's view that people today feel that they should live their lives as though they were television personalities and fictional characters.
Surely, Dr. Ablow is correct. This is a new cultural phenomenon. It is reflected in posts I have written on the chaos in the dating scene and the do-it-yourself-ism on Wall Street.
Given the absence of a coherent culture, people forge a semblance of human connection by creating drama. They find it repressive to show respect and consideration for others. Besides, politeness slows the narrative.
Powers takes it a step further when she suggests that our culture has undermined civility by glorifying incivility.
She places blame with the reality shows that glorify rude and shameless behavior. Whether it is Jerry Springer or "The Bad Girls Club," if you are willing to make a fool of yourself you will have a better chance to get on television. Shamelessness sells.
But this did not come from the moon. We owe some of it to the therapy culture. If you follow the precepts laid down by the therapy culture you ought to overcome civility and become a fictional character or a celebrity.
Didn't Freud say that we were all unconsciously modeling ourselves on the character of Oedipus? And didn't he write the standard denunciation of civilized morality in "Civilization and its Discontents?" Who would have imagined that people would actually make it all into rules to live by?
The therapy culture has told people that they can recreate themselves and transform the narrative of their lives. To do so, it helps to follow your impulses and express your most intense emotions.
If you follow these rules your life will become a permanent psychodrama. I guarantee it. Even a Keith Ablow has understood the problem and is offering his patients the correct counsel, the therapy culture is pushing hard in the opposite direction.
Here I want to add that the best way to glorify incivility is to devalue moderation by seeing everything in extreme terms.
Television dramas advance the therapy culture by offering thinly disguised moral lessons. How often do they show a young person who has such strong feelings about a great cause that he is relieved of the requirement to be civil?
How many times have you seen a passionate young person working himself into a lather while arguing a motion in a courtroom. The geriatric judge is horrified at this display of raw emotion and wants to punish the breach of decorum.
Yet, the issues are so vital-- whether they be life or death, the survival of the planet, or the existence of constitutional government-- that he is eventually vindicated and the judge is shown to be an old fool.
Once you accept that extreme situations require incivility, you need but make every problem into a life or death matter. Cutting down trees is serial killing; Roe v. Wade unleashed a holocaust; people who refuse to believe in global warming are Nazis.
Where did this extremist alarmism originate? In recent history, incivility first became glorified during the 1960s with the anti-war movement and the counterculture.
If you are passionate about your cause, civil discourse and moderation were ploys to cover up the monstrosity of the war.
And this was not merely the province of the radical left. In 1964 the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater declaimed: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
When it comes to political discourse, the clearest sign of incivility occurs when people declare that their cause is so true, their beliefs so righteous, their passion so pure and strong... that people who differ must be silenced.
Incivility means disrespecting people who disagree with you. It is the enemy of the free trade in ideas. It promotes groupthink to the point of shunning people who dare to differ. And it often does it under the banner of freedom.
If everyone you know thinks the same thing, then you should not consider yourselves to be a band of free thinkers.
Extremes exist. They are the exception, not the rule. A culture that makes them the rule will produce more and more of them... to validate itself.