Rude Awakening Manners: Most days, Americans wouldn't earn many good conduct medals. Some people think it's time to mend our ways.

February 17, 1997|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF Sun researcher Bobby Schrott contributed to this article with utmost civility.

A citizen assigned to jury duty is jailed for throwing a temper tantrum before a judge.

In a pre-med lecture, students chide their teacher for speaking too fast.

A college-age man violently curses a woman he has never met and practically assaults her. She yanks off his eyeglasses and stomps on them.

A pedestrian spits on the window of a driver he thinks cut him off.

A random quest for extreme incivility in Baltimore yields examples with unsettling ease, reinforcing a heated debate taking place in forums as various as Ann Landers and the Wilson Quarterly. In books, think tanks, foundations, commissions, government bodies, on talk shows and the Internet, the decline of Western civility is one hot topic.

From sporting Spandex shorts in fancy restaurants to Congressional name-calling, we have become a country of philistines, cry social critics both popular and intellectual. Whatever happened to please and thank you, let alone respect for the social contract that keeps us at arm's length from savagery?

"This is not a middle-class conspiracy," says William A. Galston, a former presidential adviser and director of the national Commission on Civic Renewal. "There is an overwhelming consensus among the American people that basic norms of good conduct have deteriorated in this country."

After years of admonishing the coarse and crass, Judith Martin still hasn't gotten her message across. In her eighth book, "Ms. Manners Rescues Civilization: From Sexual Harassment, Frivolous Lawsuits, Dissing and Other Lapses in Civility," she ominously opines that "people making up their own rules and deciding which courtesies they want to observe, and which they don't, is exactly the problem.

"Activities as basic to society as the classroom, the meeting and the athletic contest cannot proceed unless everybody knows and agrees to obey the same specific etiquette rules that provide orderliness and fairness."

But before we dismiss contemporary life as one big bowl of crudities, let's back up and examine the debate du jour in context.

First, consider the reactionary popular culture in which this debate is taking place. The same public-opinion mongers that declare us a rude society also have us believing in angels and worshiping at the stove of a rich blond woman who gilds baby pumpkins and spoons soup from them. To a certain extent, the deplorable state of manners is just another trendy morsel for public devouring.

Escalating this strange state of affairs is the fact that this nation, if our official trend-spotters are to be believed, is merely a herd of like-minded people. If one person believes in angels, everybody believes in angels. If one woman loves Martha Stewart, all women love Martha Stewart. If one person spits, everyone spits. And so, after querying all of 303 people, a Bloomberg News poll released last month concluded that disrespect is "epidemic" and listed such appalling gaffes as serving leftovers to company and failing to RSVP. Disgraceful!

So when it comes to our politeness quotient, whom do you trust: the TV and the pundit gallery, or you and your circle of friends who prepare dinner for sick neighbors, teach children right from wrong and volunteer at soup kitchens?

For that matter, if you do happen to believe in angels and Martha Stewart, how boorish could you possibly be?

Striking back

On a more sober plane, random acts of civility do appear to be at an all-time low. The pitch of politicians is more strident, the gauntlet is thrown down more quickly, the stakes get higher faster.

But consider, too, our earnestness about this behavioral crisis. The entire country is taking a meeting to resolve it:

The National Commission on Civic Renewal, founded by Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican William Bennett, recently held its first plenary session "to look at moral decline, community, and political participation in America."

A family in New England donated $35 million to establish an Institute for a Civil Society.

The National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, run by Lamar Alexander and other conservatives, encourages private giving within communities.

The president of the University of Pennsylvania heads the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community.

What these entities ultimately accomplish may be academic; but their mere existence should give doomsayers cause for hope. As long as there are meetings, commissions, committees, clubs, associations and conventions, we can feel confident the American way is not entirely lost to barbarism.

Writing centuries apart, Alexis de Tocqueville and historian Max Lerner both noted that the "principle of association" is crucial in America. We are a nation of joiners. Belonging is important, and it is through clubs and associations that "the sense of community comes closest to being achieved. Through them also the idea of neighborhood has been re-created in America," Lerner wrote 40 years ago in "America as a Civilization."

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