Ethics Call To Arms: Fight the “Fuck You!” Culture

“Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.”

This was the very first edict in the list of civility rules memorized by George Washington as a child, rules that shaped his character and significantly influenced not only his life and career but the fate of America. Like most of Washington’s 11o rules, the first has universal and timeless validity, pointing all of us and our culture toward a society based on mutual respect, caring, empathy, and fairness.

Recently, however, there has been a powerful cultural movement away from George’s rules and the culture of civility that they represent. Rudeness has always been with us, of course, and public decorum has been in steady decline since the Beatniks of the Fifties, to the point where it is unremarkable to see church-goers in flip-flops and airplane passengers in tank-tops. Something else is going on, however. Like the colored dots of paint in a George Seurat painting, isolated incidents and clues have begun to converge into a picture, and it is not one of a pleasant day in the park. I believe we are seeing a dangerous shift away from civility as a cultural value, which means that we are seeing a cultural rejection of ethics. The past two weeks have presented damning evidence that this true.

Today, we read of a Sacramento, Cal. Burger King where the employees handed out receipts reading “FUCK YOU” where they were supposed to say, “Thank you.” As is the case with Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater, who became a momentary celebrity by cursing a planeful of passengers and fleeing down the emergency slide, an astonishing number of Americans support the uncivil conduct. [Aside: Slater, believe it or not, has re-emerged as a performer of that most uncivil of all musical art forms, rap. You can’t make this stuff up….] One typical commenter writes,

“HAHAHA Anyone who eats that fast food garbage deserves what they get..even messages on the receipts.”

Other examples from around the web:

  • This is hilarious, and I know many people are secretly wishing they had the balls this employee did.”
  • “Fast Food Employees work extremely hard for their hourly wages, which isnt much in this economy and they should at least be entitled to have some fun while on the clock, but noooo, their Slave Driving Employers wont let them.”
  • “That has to be one of the most hilarious stunts I have even seen done to a company. AND, you can bet the employee did have a grudge against the company. He/she more than likely had an a-hole for a supervisor.”
  • “I hope Burger King is reading these comments. If you treated your employees with respect, and paid them better, they would respect your company and your customers. Burger King pays slave wages, no health benefits, not even a bonus or anything for Christmas. Of course the employees don’t care about you or the customers…You are expecting low paid over worked people to serve you quality food with a smile and a thank you? PULEASE!”

The story is reminiscent of the disturbing Direct TV commercials that celebrate assaults and insults directed at neighbors who have the audacity not to root for one’s favorite football team, specifically the commercial where an elderly woman secretly leaves a cake on a neighbor’s doorstep, with the message “Dirt Bag!” written on the frosting. The Burger King episode is the third reported “fuck you” incident this week, beginning with pop star Rihanna’s necklace, continuing with an Atlantic Monthly writer’s published message (on behalf of his magazine as well) in the same vein to those who wish ill to Christopher Hitchens, and now Burger King.

It all may be a coincidence, but I don’t think so. We are being increasingly bombarded by insults and incivility every day, on the web, on talk radio, on Fox and MSNBC, in ads, and the popular culture. The “fuck you” messages from the government are less explicit, but unmistakable nonetheless, from Nancy Pelosi’s defiant refusal to give up her party leadership, to Joe Miller’s outrageous attempt to steal victory in the Alaska Senate race by disqualifying the votes of anyone who couldn’t spell “Murkowski,” to Charlie Rangel’s disrespectful treatment of the House ethics process, to the Transportion Security Administration’s dictatorial response to passengers who object to being sexually molested as a condition of flying, which is, essentially, “Tough.”

We have the power to resist this cultural trend, and I strongly advise that we start using it. A democracy can no more survive when everyone is attacking, belittling, insulting, and saying “Fuck you!” to each other than a family or an athletic team. If we allow Washington’s first rule to be replaced by “Show your contempt for the world and your fellow citizens at every opportunity,” we will soon be living in a self-constructed hell.

Here is what we must do:

  • Insist that our leaders treat us and each other with deference and respect.
  • Refuse to tolerate personal attacks and vicious characterizations from  public figures, celebrities, commentators and journalists.
  • Isolate and reject the purveyors of incivility, like Ann Coulter, Ed Schultz, the Daily Kos, Marc Levin, Alan Grayson, Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, Dick Cheney, and too many others to mention. Stop applauding when they call each other “pin-heads,” racists, “enemies,” Nazis, killers, traitors, or “the Worst Person in the World.”
  • Confront, oppose and report the uncivil people in everyday life. Insist on “hello,” “please,” “thank-you,” and the rest, delivered with a genuine attitude of openness and friendliness.
  • Don’t laugh at, condone or encourage uncivil conduct and discourse, even when you dislike the target, or are amused by the style of the incivility. Yes, this poses a problem for comedy: Lewis Black and Chris Rock are awfully funny. But at a time when the public seems to be unable to tell the difference between comics, legitimate journalists, and political leaders, some attitudes may need to be scaled back by public disapproval. When Charlie Chaplan kicked his adversaries in the pants, everyone laughed, but they still knew that it wasn’t the way to behave in the real world. This separation between entertainment and reality seems to be eluding us now. I’ll laugh at Lewis Black calling people “fuckheads” again when the pop stars, airplane attendants, Burger King employees and Atlantic writers learn that what is acceptable in a comedy club is not the proper standard for civilized society.
  • We need to be civil, respectful and fair ourselves, every day, all the time.
  • And we need to apologize when we are not.

The alternative is to live in a “Fuck You!” culture.  It is our choice. We can go there if we choose, but we should not allow the rudest and most obnoxious among us to push as there against our wills.


10 thoughts on “Ethics Call To Arms: Fight the “Fuck You!” Culture

  1. Just one word, Jack: YES!
    I recall that a poll was done a few years back on the subject of civility, or lack thereof. In short, most of those polled agreed that there was too much incivility in society today and that the problem was getting worse. However, the majority also maintained that they themselves behaved civilly way more often than not. There, in a nutshell, is why there is an incivility problem: too few people will own up to having a responsibility for it. Civility, politeness, courtesy—these things require work and we all need to keep busy with it.

  2. I once posited that lack of civility was the root of our problems to someone bemoaning the injustices in America. The listener scoffed, “I’m talking about people starving and you are talking about not being treated nicely.” To which I responded, “How do we ever expect anyone to care about hunger if people don’t even care about respecting each other in daily conversation?” I didn’t win over my colleague. Still, it is reassuring to see that there are at least a few who get it. I am much relieved to know that I am in the company of G. Washington (oh, and J. Marshall – that would be Jack, and not Justice.)

  3. Incivility is rampant, as you say. From the way people dress in public, the way they treat other drivers, from pushing and shoving in line, from the way parents talk to each other (much less each other), ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

    Why are we so shocked when politicians treat each other badly; when the President of the United States refers to his ideological opponents as the “enemy?” Is it a chicken and egg thing? Frankly, I don’t think the average American pays enough attention to politicians to pick up their behavior and make it their own. I think politicians are users, and will get away with whatever they think they can manage.

    It sounds stupid, but I live in a wealthy neigborhood that abuts several low income areas. In the grocery store, drug store, on the street, I am consistently bumped into (personally, or with carts, etc.) by people who seem to resent well-dressed (if casually) white women, or, to be fair, are so stressed and in such a hurry that don’t have time to be polite. Every single time, I apologize to the person who interfered with ME, even though it was not my fault. Sometimes I just get a grunt in return, but amazingly of often, I receive an “Oh, no, it was MY fault,” we exchange smiles and go on our way.

    So I take fault for something that I need not have, but most often it ends up in one positive experience for both people involved, and I can only hope that that one kind exchange lasts a day or so.

    (To be honest,there was one egregious incident where I threatened to call the police: THAT was a different experience, but it probably stayed with the A**HOLE for a day or so anyway… 🙂

    My mother taught me years ago that kindness begets kindness. I can’t run a large “Civility Conference.” We can’t legislate civility. We COULD take a lesson from the UK, where a winning Minister of Parliament was tossed out because it was discovered that he lied about his opponent in the campaign. It is against the law in the UK to do so. Imagine trying to get that through Congress!

    But I digress. We can stop laughing at cruelty. We can stop watching by the millions the YouTube films of mortifying incidents. We can try to live in a civil manner on a day to day basis. I know many people hated the movie, but in terms of personal civility, “Pay It Forward” may be an individual start. I practice it. Don’t know if it works, but I’m trying.

  4. Pingback: Tweets that mention Ethics Call To Arms: Fight the “Fuck You!” Culture | Ethics Alarms --

  5. Jack,
    Before beginning in earnest, this is NOT an attempt to be a perpetual contrarian or play devil’s advocate. This is a REAL opinion being expressed:

    “Please” and “thank-you” are only civil words because they’ve been deemed that way over generations. However, there’s nothing inherently UN-civil about “fuck,” “shit,” or all those other four-letter words we’ve been told not to use, and could just as easily be used the other way. Telling someone to “fuck off” may not be nice, but it’s only offensive if someone chooses to find it as such. Words are meaningless and it’s only the ideas they represent which hold any real power in our lives.

    I say none of this to suggest that expletives SHOULD be considered civil, or that those who find them offensive are “behind the times.” But it does strike me as odd that we as a society are always first to attack those who did the offending, rather than those who WERE offended. Someone may call me a “fag” or an “asshole” but it can’t actually hurt my feelings unless I internalize the assumption (which I usually don’t), making me partially at fault.

    Burger King doing it is inexcusable, but the same can’t be said of individuals.


    PS: This isn’t even remotely similar to the DirectTV ads, nor are they endemic of the same problem, but kudos for finding something else to hang that shaky bit of logic on.

    • Thanks! I was rather proud of myself.
      Gee, Neil, please don’t get paranoid because of the “contrarian” crack a while back. I didn’t intend it to suggest that you take positions you don’t believe in, just that you enjoy taking the side less traveled.

      I have said “fuck you” and had it said in contexts where it was neither intended as an insult or taken that way. There is a reasonable presumption that “please” amd “thank you” are expressions of gentility and respect, and “up yours” and “FU” are the opposite. I can’t see blaming someone who takes offense when offense is obviously intended, nor do I think those who intentionally violate norms of decorum should avoid responsibility. Your larger point has validity—I just don’t think “Fuck you” is the best place for it.

  6. PPS: Martin Luther, in a number of his writings referred to humanity as “shit,” while classifying those among us lucky enough to be saved as “shit covered in snow.”

    Who are we to fight human nature?

  7. PPPS: Nevermind. Martin Luther never said any such thing .. the phrase of which I was thinking was a “snow-covered dung-hill” and even THAT has never been definitively traced back to Luther (though he was fond of comparing humanity with fecal matter).

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