The guy spewing high volume F-bombs into his cell phone in an airport terminal, the woman chomping her gum with bovine indifference in a doctor’s waiting room – they seem oblivious to the world around them, focused only on their own small spheres. If you ask them to stop, they would probably say, “Why?”
The sense of what is appropriate behavior — the sense that there is such a thing as appropriate behavior — is diminishing across our culture. Considering what other people will think has been replaced by a reflexive recitation of one’s rights to do as one pleases.
I’m Living in my Father’s Nightmare
I frequently utter that lament. The only reason it’s not my nightmare is that I’m inured to it. The universality of today’s obvious rudeness is matched only by the universality of millenia of elders wailing at the failures of the following generation to behave properly. I’m in no position to judge whether the wheels are falling off the cart of our social standards any faster than did my grandfather’s.
So let’s abstract the problem a little higher. The rudeness of the proletariat is a failure of the arbiters of taste and the people they might influence: social and business leaders.
Manners are the outward and visible sign of an inward and justifiable aspiration. We mimic those whom we admire in hopes of achieving their station. Only in that sense does the trickle-down theory actually work. There are only two explanations for the manners meltdown:
- The well-mannered are not admirable.
- The well-mannered are not really in charge.
In either case, they will fail to inspire polite behavior.
Case 1. Well-mannered people are not admirable.
It is unacceptably rude behavior to enrich oneself at the expense of the hourly workers: to do so is beneath the dignity that capitalists and upper management claim to possess.
It is boorish to torture enemies and to eavesdrop on fellow citizens: it gives the lie to the nation’s guiding standard of fair play and fair dealing by powerful people. True strength would never behave that way. Our most successful and best-dressed leaders have trashed our economic commons by their cavalier treatment of capitalism: on their watch, it has devolved into a sordid ponzi scheme whereby ambitious but uninformed middle class homeowners are abused by the slick hucksters employed by the financial industry.
Society’s best and brightest purposely thrive at the expense of the hoi polloi that destiny has entrusted to their enlightened treatment. Is there any behavior more contemptible?
Clearly, this is nothing new. What is new is that it’s become clear to everyone how poorly they’re being treated. As John Galbraith put it,
The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy;
that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.
Case 2. Well-mannered people are not actually in charge.
Under this case, we let go of the simplistic, tempting diatribes against the well-mannered. We get it that high-quality families like Ed Cone’s, who had cultural and economic sway over an entire region and impressive industrial efforts are not out to fleece us. Sure, they are as apt to defend their way of life as anybody, and they’re more skilled at it. But they did not set out to rob the poor, nor did they set up systems to do so. They just couldn’t help what has happened to the middle class, because they weren’t really in charge. Since we only mimic the behavior of those in charge, we find other prosperous people to admire and mimic, like rap stars and crack dealers.
Perhaps there’s a pendulum effect at work: good manners trickle down only when the well-mannered are in charge and admirable. Otherwise, boorishness bubbles up spontaneously.