If rudeness is so pervasively commonplace throughout our society, does it cease to be rudeness?
I’m wrestling with my amateur version of a great philosophical paradox: if rudeness is so pervasively commonplace throughout society, does it cease to be rudeness?
It started when I went to our local bookstore this week to hear the nattily suited Howard Dean talk about his book, Howard Dean’s Prescription for Health Care Reform, and ended up riveted instead by a rich display of rampant rudeness. Knees, backsides and hand-bags took swipes at me as people rushed towards the empty seats in my row with nary an “excuse me” being uttered.
A perfectly healthy middle-aged man refused to offer his seat to a woman well in her 80s. But she, too, cut a wholly unsympathetic figure by repeatedly refusing my offer of a seat because she preferred, I realized later, to stand and glower at him rather than to sit comfortably.
And there were others who obviously felt Dean was interrupting their talking. During question time, a woman politely mentioned that she was supportive of Obama’s health care quest even though she had voted for Nader. Well! Like slings and arrows, loud boos and sibilant jeers shot through the airwaves with flaming disapproval. Dean immediately waved the parentally punitive index finger as he loudly exclaimed, to his great credit, I might add, “No, no, no, there will be none of this behavior”!
These are not spittoon using yahoos, these are not the sans culottes of the third estate.
No, the audience here is a consistently thick slice of Washington, D.C.’s Ward 4, whose fame spiked recently in a profile by the columnist David Brooks. Row after row of quills (quasi-intellectual liberals) in their shabby best, laser-beaming their eager intent to clap whenever the champion of the day verbally reinforces their ideology and to hiss whenever their orthodoxy is challenged.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not wielding a partisan slap. My intellectual curiosity has an open-door policy to many a topic, issue and argument.
Shifting over to the rudeness taking place in town-hall meetings. I felt sorry for Congressman Barney Frank having to stand up for both issue and self as he humbly battled the babbling rabble-rouser who kept belligerently interrupting him. I can’t recall his being treated this way when he faced the personal scandal in the early '90s. On the other side of the coin was Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee’s appallingly rude choice to answer her cell phone in the middle of a constituent’s polite question. No clearer statement of her disdain for those who elected her could possibly have been made if she were to use a megaphone. She should have been upbraided.
And we can’t forget Dick Cheney crassly telling Senator Leahy on the Senate floor to go f—- himself. But now, Cheney’s spirit seems to have found a new home in Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, who stands in full-fledged arrogant armor beating down reporters with sword-sharp condescension so thick you can see the self-righteous contempt dribbling from the corners of his mouth as he blames the heretofore Obamadulating media for the public option losing support.
All this violent visual volley reminds me of the one in the infernal landscape of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting, “Garden of Earthly Delights.” So what the hell is going on? Why aren’t we minding our manners? Have Emily Post and Miss Manners lost their relevance? What is making us humans behave so badly?
You could say it’s gotten too crowded; too many rats in the same maze vying for the same trough or microphone. Or it could be that there is raging fear behind the rudeness. Fear is always behind anger, psychologists say. Fear of losing control, of being dominated by government regulations, suffocated by a multi-trillion dollar deficit. It all sounds plausible.
But these hypotheses fail to probe the masses for an organic etiology.
Humans have an unwritten code of ethics, a moral code, that’s been wired into our brain, as neuroscientists have been discovering, that serve as the underpinnings of rules of social behavior. Even chimps, our primate cousins, abide by rules like reciprocity and fairness, as the great Emory primatologist and psychologist, Frans de Waal, has observed over decades. Chimps trust when they receive generosity, express resentment when others don’t share and swiftly punish those who behave selfishly.
You might say that good behavior is the building erected from the neural scaffolding of morality. From these moral rules both manners and laws evolved. Edmund Burke, the provocatively thinking 18th century British politician, thought laws don’t hold a torch to manners: “The law touches us but here and there, and now and then but manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation.” Manners, he said, either sustain or destroy morals.
There’s no more vivid illustration than the Victorian society depicted in Jane Austen’s novels where day-to-day civility of refined and graceful manners — the curtsies, turned up pinky fingers at tea-time, bowing of the head upon meeting — visually profess an adherence to entrenched moral values that were — in Burkeian fashion — reinforced by the exigencies of royal conduct that, in turn, trickled down to Queen Victoria’s subjects themselves.