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


kid fu

[This happens sometimes with 5000 posts in the bank: some topic causes me to find one that I can’t even remember writing, and I realize that I still agree with it, and if I forgot about, everyone else probably did too. The previous post led me to link to this one, and I decided that the list of steps I recommended to try to halt the culture’s slide into permanent vulgarity and incivility was worth re-posting, especially since five years ago the blog got less than a fifth of the traffic it does today. Thus I am re-posting this one, slightly edited to remove a few rhetorical excesses and outdated references, from November 18, 2010.]

“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.

In Sacramento, California. Burger King  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 supported this uncivil conduct. 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 wished ill to the dying journalist 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.

We have the power to resist this cultural trend, and I strongly advise that we start using it. A democracy can no more survive intact when everyone is attacking, belittling, insulting, and saying “Fuck you!” to each other than can 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 in the news media and among our political leaders. Stop applauding when they call each other pin-heads, racists, enemies, Nazis, killers, and traitors.
  • Confront and oppose 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 Chaplin 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 be more able to laugh at Lewis Black calling people “fuckheads”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.

20 thoughts on “Encore: “Ethics Call To Arms: Fight the ‘Fuck You!’ Culture”

  1. I’m kind of torn here. Usually I just bite my tongue if someone acts like an idiot, because their behavior speaks for itself, however, sometimes it becomes necessary to fight back when it looks like someone who’s in the wrong is going to prevail simply by virtue of being louder, or ruder, or more obnoxious. At that point it’s play to win, and if it means using sharp elbows or getting nasty, then so be it. That’s why I particularly hate someone like a Dan Savage, who can’t seem to put a sentence together without saying “fuck you” yet is hailed as some kind of hero, and I would love nothing better than to see someone like a Chris Christie face down someone like Hilary and put her in her place by using her own bully tactics against her (maybe my confidence in CC is misplaced, I’ll admit).

    That said, I can’t imagine high public officials or even public figures in the Reagan era openly swearing and cursing and hurling crude and cheap insults. It just wasn’t done or expected. Usually the movie theater was the main place you went for that sort of thing, and all movies were fairly clearly rated so you knew what you were getting and could choose to go or not go (though the PG-13 rating had to be invented to cover the situation where things weren’t that foul, but got kind of violent). Then it became the thing to do in the early 90s to start using progressively dirtier language on television and elsewhere (i.e. NYPD Blue, which used saltier language than usual, allowed an occasional glimpse of the gluteus maximus, and, arguably, made bigotry appear a little more acceptable by prominently featuring Dennis Franz’ [excellently acted] Andy Sipowicz , a cop who was good at his job, but also a racist, sexist, homophobic jerk). Around the same time, or maybe a little earlier, music also went a lot dirtier and edgy, with Axl Rose (I’m fuckin’ innocent), Public Enemy (“die, pig die”) and Madonna (“Justify My Love”) all pushing the envelope a lot farther and getting accolades for it.

    It shouldn’t come as a surprise that after these changes being the nose of the camel, the rest of the camel came in, particularly with social media now allowing us to sit behind our keyboards and hurl whatever we want without fear of repercussions (witness our own recent cluster f-bombing campaign, which I’m not particularly proud of). That said, I think it’s hard to roll back this polluted tide (no, this is NOT the brown, stinky tide) and create anew the culture of the 1950s.

    • Appreciated.

      I’m not entirely sure we can boil it down it the word though. The word is a symptom. It’s a symptom of a society a little more free, with a much shorter attention span, and a rapidly changing vocabulary.

      You look at some of the best insults in black and white cinema (I’d call you a name, but that word isn’t used in polite society, outside of a kennel comes to mind) and the insults were there. They were just a little more…. cranial. A little harder to insert. It’s like the Difference between “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Go Home, Get Stoned Because the Sex is so Much Better When You’re Mad at Me ” I think that the rudeness we encounter is part of a culture that is more appreciative of “Got’cha” bumper sticker moments than a truly crushing, sarcastic piece of snark. I’m not sure the average person is equipped to deliver it, even if they were inclined to. We’re a culture of quick, and I think we could all do with a little slowing down.

  2. Just a quick question. I wonder if this happens to anyone else a lot. Many times I will be walking in front of a mother with a baby stroller and before I enter a store I will hold the door open for the mother, baby and stroller. The mother is almost always grateful and says thank you BUT before I can get into the store…another person quickly walks in while Im holding the door, then another, then a group of people etc. Now, these people never say thank even though tney see me holding the door and I am definitely not wearing a door holder opener uniform of any sort. This happens to me quite a bit and its just a pet peeve of mine.

    • I wonder if this happens to anyone else a lot.
      Just happened to my husband on Saturday night.
      Only he held the door for an elderly couple as we were leaving Carrabbas and everybody and their brother, coming and going, had to step up their pace to slip through the door – as if it would close otherwise.
      I made it to the other side of the parking lot before someone took the door from him.

  3. Agreed. Interesting timing given some comments regarding how to respond to the group member who demanded that no other should were a cologne that would irritate her.

  4. Perfect timing for me, this post. I start to get suspicious that I am being secretly tracked by a Jack-Cam, all miked-up too. Jack seems to get his ideas on what to say, and when, by observing ME surreptitiously. I am his Bad Example, the Ethics Refusenik. Or so it seems, sometimes.

    I don’t know whether to feel relieved, or even more frustrated about life in general, thus resolved all the more to continue as I have been lately, reveling in ever greater incivility. I was just getting warmed-up for an exciting season of unprecedented Scroogery. NOW I have to re-evaluate? NOW?!

  5. I think most people only consider two options when they encounter people they disagree with or dislike. One option is to tolerate it in silence. The resentment is still there, but everyone pretends it isn’t. The other option is to somehow annoy, obstruct, or shun the other person in an attempt to somehow drive the reviled quality from the world through sheer contempt. There’s a trend of moving from the former option to the latter option. After all, why tolerate what you could fight? Fighting could theoretically accomplish something, doesn’t harm anyone you care about, and is so much more fun!

    That said, these options are conceived by people with no concept of humility, understanding, or respect for differences. Tolerance or intolerance, there is no paradigm of reconciliation. There is no idea that other people might have important concerns or that one’s own concerns may be unimportant. There is no deconstruction of emotions and no demonstration of respect or support for others. There is especially no showing of restraint, such as waiting until a better time to address a problem, rather than doing so while an unrelated issue is being addressed. As far as I know, based on history and fiction, the general populace has never had these qualities, and only pacified itself by staying close to similar people and banding together against those who were different rather than resolving their issues and sacrificing a sense of entitlement and comfort.

    I had these skills drilled into me as a child with much aggravation for all involved, and I do resent the idea that many of the people around me are allowed to call themselves adults without having learned them. However, I do know that it is they who are suffering in their ignorance, and I would show them the skills of tranquility and communication not out of spite, but out of compassion.

      • It blows my mind that anyone could read that document without their blood going cold. Forty-five of these goals reaching fruition to the letter cannot be dismissed as fear-mongering, tin-foiling paranoia.

      • It sells itself when you’ve sufficiently dumbed-down the populace, reduced their attention spans to that of spider monkeys on amphetamines, and made them as soft and helpless as lambs.

      • They didn’t need to include it. It had already been achieved.

        46. Become entrenched in the University system where it can indoctrinate foolish and impressionable college students for generation after generation no mattern how badly the idea performs in the real world. These students will go in to become leaders and try to implement the idea over and over no matter how bad the previous results.

      • Jeez. That’s REAL anger. I can see the kid pointing his forefinger at someone in a few years – watching it go off and kill somebody. Are you sure it’s not an insane dwarf?

  6. A new commenter, Franklin, wrote this, which is an interesting comment: too bad I spammed (BANNED) him. Sorry: if your first words upon entering my blog are “Fuck you”—no, I don’t care if he did it for effect—my reaction is the same as if you appear at my door and those are the first words out of your mouth. I’m closing the door in your face. So he’s banned. Asshole. If he wants to apply for a reinstatement, starting with an apology, he knows where to find me.

    “Fuck you. Actually Americans still retain a veneer of civility, covering their despicable backstabbing core. This civility is completely fake and represents nothing. It is disgusting, like lipstick on a pig.

    Ethics means keeping meaningful moral rules. And this requires self-discipline, which modern people completely lack. This self-discipline was once taught in religion, where followers were required to follow certain rules and rituals as a means of training in self-discipline, which made morality possibility. But modern religion, including almost all of Christianity and non-Orthodox Judaism, has lost this, so the followers of these religions are now the modern human scum who currently infest our world. The one and only means of promoting meaningful ethics is through strict religions that require serious exercises in self-discipline.”

    In addition to being dead wrong about civility–it reinforces respect, makes it more pleasant to go though life, and embodies the Gold Rule that Franklin ought to be familiar with, he doesn’t have any idea what ethics is, which he seems to confuse with morality. Rules make people act ethical, but they don’t do much to make them be ethical.

  7. Not funny. I believe that ‘you deserve a break today… McDonald’s’ would be humorous and inoffensive (to the public at least)

  8. The part about people not being disciplined interesting to me. Most of my life was disciplined and I was a quiet person anyway so I did not bother to many people.
    I became a religious person when I was 33 years old. As someone who grew up in the Midwest and the South,parents taught values. I am respected for my values by many people. Whether it’s from religion or parents you need to be self disciplined. You also need to be kind if you want the world to be OK for your children. The Midwest I grew up in wanted the best for their kids. Whether they were Christian or Jewish or Athiest or other they wanted the best for their kids and for most everyone.
    If we take back values we could have a better world. It is not simple but it is easier than you think. If someone isn’t kind you can ignore them or politely call them out. Don’t add to mean behavior my being mean. Two wrongs will not make anything right. There is much truth to Orthodox Judaism teaching self discipline. My Orthodox friends practice kindness and dsicipline all the time. Some of they didn’t grow up with these values, they chose them.
    Anyone can choose to be a better person. KINDness MATTers.

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