Pushing the limits of public civility Release of Starr report provides new evidence of 'coarsening of America'

'Do we like what we see?'

September 20, 1998|By Jean Marbella and John Rivera | Jean Marbella and John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The national discourse was already in free fall, what with the airwaves dominated by a Jerry Springer sensibility and political debate reduced to the loudest and the lowest.

But then came the Starr report.

Somehow, a government report managed to offend a country that seemed beyond offending.

"This is telling us who we are as a society as a whole," said Pier Massimo Forni, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "This has put a mirror in front of us. We look in the mirror, we see our images in the mirror. Do we like what we see?"

Forni, a professor of Italian literature, created the Hopkins Civility Project to examine, and perhaps remedy, what he considers a decline in public life in recent years. Like others who are part of the burgeoning civility movement, he sees connections between disparate phenomena: the "road ragers" who would as soon offer an obscene gesture as give right-of-way, the crass humor and language that pervade entertainment, the kind of culture in which a president is just another celebrity to be mined for shallow talk and idle gossip.

"Americans started to perceive that there was a coarsening of America that was going on, and that that was having a substantial effect on the quality of their everyday lives," he said. "Certainly what happened in the White House has only heightened the concern. It gives the concern a particular urgency.

"We live in an age of total disclosure, or at least the expectation of total disclosure," Forni said. "What can be considered part of the public discourse has widened to the point that there seems to be no topic that is off-limits."

Indeed, whether it's on television or in the grand jury room, the old bounds of what was considered decent no longer seem respected.

'Boxers or briefs?'

Clinton is the president who has been asked on MTV, "Boxers or briefs?" -- and it has been downhill ever since. But surely no one predicted then that it would come to this: the disturbingly graphic details released first in the Starr report and, tomorrow, the videotape of Clinton's grand jury testimony and transcripts of Monica Lewinsky's.

Even without those further revelations, many feel they've already seen and heard enough. The scandal has become one more thing from which to avert their eyes or to protect their children.

"I don't think I'll tune in to see the video. It was bad enough reading the report," said Kelly Hoyle, a Baltimore savings and loan manager who, like many office workers, spent Sept. 11 crowded around a computer as the Starr report unfolded on the Internet. "When we got to certain parts, there would be silence, or embarrassed laughs."

Perhaps it was inevitable that the White House would be pulled along with the rest of the country as it spiraled away from its moorings, a society no longer able to reach a consensus on what is appropriate where.

"There once was a reverence toward 1600 Pennsylvania," said a rueful Letitia Baldridge, who was Jacqueline Kennedy's social secretary in the White House. "Now, there she was hiking up her jacket to show her thong underwear -- and him going for it. Ugh!"

Too much information, as the current toss-off line goes.

"People are outraged," Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen said, "but what they're outraged at is that this private behavior has become the fodder for this public display."

There seem to be no boundaries anymore between private and public, between informal and formal. Language expected in a locker room or outbursts appropriate to a day-care center are occurring in the most formal places.

"Part of what I do every day is what a first-grade teacher does -- parenting infants," sighed Baltimore Circuit Judge Albert J. Matricciani Jr. "It's astounding to me the type of behavior people think is appropriate in court."

Matricciani and other judges have seen the order in their courts steadily diminish over the years: There was the woman on the witness stand who began breast-feeding her baby as she testified. The lawyer who cleared his throat during a proceeding by ducking his head out the courtroom and spitting on the floor.

As president of the Baltimore Bar Association, Matricciani oversaw the drafting of guidelines on civility, something dozens of other bars across the country have seen fit to enact.

Similarly, Baltimore City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III found himself playing schoolmarm to his raucous fellow lawmakers last year. After a series of fractious meetings and near fisticuffs, he wrote a code of conduct that would work equally well in a kindergarten classroom: Stay in your seats. Remain quiet when the president is speaking. No name-calling. Give others a chance to speak.

Television, however, has become the medium in which every rude act is topped by an even cruder one. The proud underachiever Bart Simpson begets the head-banging Beavis and Butt-head, who in turn beget the nihilistic citizens of South Park.

Forced to be rude

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