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We Are a Rude Awakening

If rudeness is so pervasively commonplace throughout our society, does it cease to be rudeness?

By 8.28.09

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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.

Their kinder, gentler social world certainly makes Plato's "society is the soul writ large" ring true.

Respectful manners of yesteryear came easy because they came from within, from the heart. The zombied "have a nice day" politeness is, sadly, characteristic of today's social world. Being genuinely respectful and solicitous of one another is literally heartfelt because it taps into empathy, a moral emotion that is literally and figuratively at the heart of the moral brain. Empathy makes it possible to put ourselves in others' shoes, to feel their pain, and to do for others as you would have done to you.

Another 18th century figure, the Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith, very astutely viewed empathy as the backbone of a code of ethics that keeps society running smoothly. In point of fact, his Moral Sentiments has served as the philosophical fulcrum beneath much of the neuroscience research on morality.

Astonishingly, Emily Post, who had neither philosophy nor even a tid-bit of neuroscience at her dainty fingertips, declared that "manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others....no matter what fork you use". What's more, as Mark Caldwell points out in his book A Short History of Rudeness, Post brilliantly observed that when society misbehaves, good behavior and morality come "unglued from each other". With this she unknowingly laid out the neural architecture and dynamics of the moral brain that neuroscientists are proving today. Without ever having to take off her white gloves.

Similarly, has our behavior come "unhinged"?… From the wellspring of moral values deep within our brain?

Yes. Let's simplify. Our moral neural circuitry, that scaffolding inside our brain, has been short-circuited by the self-centered, self-besotted ways we have come to acquire in full force. The pleasure associated with satisfying our newfound solipsistic cravings is trumping our moral code and "telling" us that our views and our needs -- to show we're right, to exhibit dominance, to get what we want and now -- are more important than anyone else's. It's the new dopamine fix and the addiction is to self and self alone.

Inward, narcissistic focus means we don't focus on others. We can't be bothered to understand how others feel because we are devoid of empathy and a lack of empathy is the sine qua non of antisocial or sociopathic behavior. The extreme on psychology's continuum or sliding scale of diagnoses has the Ted Bundys of the world -- whose lack of empathy was so severe he could kill without remorse -- while the other end of the scale holds the rude-ites -- who hurl insult and injury in various forms of rudeness without any compunction whatsoever for the effect it has on others.

Emily Post's insightful wisdom, yet again: Unconsciousness of self is not so much unselfishness as it is the mental ability to extinguish all thought of one's self, like turning out the light. Perhaps she read Plato who warned society against becoming so self focused as to be void of the glue that holds it together.

So we live in a society that is Platonically coming unglued, falling apart. E pluribus unum was the de facto motto of the United States until 1956 when Congress adopted "In God We Trust" instead. But now it might as well be erased from our currency, too, as it no longer has any purchase. It is now all about unum.

But is this phenomenon particular to our society alone? Take Asia and South America. There is a palpable levity felt long before reaching Tokyo's Nareda Airport when gate agents at the departure gate bow solemnly to passengers as they walk onto the jetway towards the plane. There is no personal, cheesy chit-chat blaring from the galleys and interrupting your dreams. Onboard a Japanese airline, the calming blanket of silence is more somnolent than any Ambien experience. And the flight attendants are truly embarrassed if you have to ask for something they haven't anticipated. A truly empathic experience that stays with you after you leave the airport and throughout the land of the rising sun.

Below the equator, in Brazil, there's even a word -- not found in the English language -- that uniquely conveys the empathy one feels for his brethren. Coitado means "poor thing" but when it's not enough to express, Brazilians go a step further and say pobre (poor) coitado. There is a palpable solidarity of humanity in the land of samba -- a chronic awareness of the needs and plights of others -- that comes with a very visible and critical mass of empathy. You can get a taste of it in the unbridled warm hospitality that even the American Airlines ad says Brazilians are the warmest people. Empathy is truly the social lubricant, and it also explains why Brazilians -- even the poor -- are extraordinarily cheerful people.

So why are we so self-focused? The great entertainer, the television, now virally aided and abetted by the Internet, has torn into our social fabric with a dollar-chasing commercial enterprise that puts the self, raunchy and rude behavior, and, of course, violence, on a pedestal.

Emily Post's gentle reader is now the coarse viewer absorbing vulgarities as social mores. I need point no further than the pathological smut broadcast as normal conduct in: Megan Wants a Millionaire, Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?, Big Brother, I Love $, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, My Redneck Wedding, The Girls Next Door, cosmetic surgery makeover shows, and so much more. And, lest we forget, the biting and gratuitous rudeness of Simon Cowell.

If ratings are an indicator, it is clear that viewers are captivated by the antisocial behavior and enchanted with the neurotic focus on the self and instant fame. The Arts & Entertainment Channel used to live up to its name but began to lose viewers until Dog the Bounty-Hunter (trash extraordinaire) brought it out of its rating doldrums to the number one spot.

Who is watching this stuff? Millions, sadly. But, more to the point, there remains a chicken-and-egg conundrum: Did the show satisfy the cravings of society or did cravings lead to the shows?

It is self-evident that the first estate, the elected elite, has also been glued to the screen, if their behavior is any indication. Or could it be that the sundry coarse indiscretions of Clinton, Foley, Sanford, Ensign, Spitzer, Craig, and so on, served as inspirational content instead.

In spite of all this mess, we seem to be pre-occupied with being a great country. Can we even be great behaving like this? One thing is certain, we have met our enemy and, indeed, it is us.

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About the Author

Marilia Duffles is a contributor to the Financial Times and the Economist. She has also written for the Globo, Brazil's leading newspaper.