“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.