Monday, November 03, 2008

Why is There a Lack of Civility in the World?

(This is another post inspired by a search referral.)

Many years ago, Robert Heinlein presents, in his novel Friday, the thesis that the spread of incivility is indicative of a failing society.  There is probably merit to this; as circumstances become regularly more dire, people are more likely to revert to their more natural survivalist behaviors, which include a tendency to be suspicious of those not related to oneself.  The whole notion of of living in cities (which is what "civil" means, fundamentally) with people to whom one is not related is artificial, learned behavior that has to be taught to and reinforced in each generation.  So the question is, have we gotten less good at teaching and reinforcing civility in the past generation?

It's probably too soon to say for sure, but I'm concerned that this might be the case.  From where I stand, the world changed in 1985, when Elmo first showed up on Sesame Street.  Elmo is aggressively self-centered and largely unconcerned about anyone but himself; he is fundamentally selfish and has been teaching children to be self-centered brats since 1985.  Prior to that, virtually all child-oriented television has emphasized cooperation, friendship, and respect of the other; Elmo teaches none of these virtues, and (as anyone who pays attention to such things knows) Elmo now commands nearly half the airtime in your average episode of Sesame Street.  A study reported on the radio here some months ago reported that today's teenagers and young adults (who would have been exposed to Sesame Street starting after 1985) test higher on metrics for narcissism than do prior generations.  Other studies have reported no change, however, and this remains a debated topic.

We certainly are seeing an increase in people's concern about broader issues, especially with younger people, but it's largely impersonal things such as "the environment".  A concern for a depersonalized environment, no matter how deeply held, doesn't necessarily translate into a concern for the feeling of one's fellow man, and in fact I've seen quite a bit of grossly uncivil conduct by committed environmentalists, who feel that it's justified to be mean to evil polluters because they're, well, evil.  The gross personal selfishness and lust for money that has captivated the national consciousness since the mid-1980s also contributes to a lack of civility.  The encrustation of the upper crust with its protected children of privilege who do not, and will never have to, work for their keep also contributes, as they have grown to expect their privilege without accepting any of the social responsibility that only a few decades ago was expected of those of means. 

I'm hoping that we're starting to grow out of this phase; to some degree the outcome of tomorrow's election will (in my mind) be a bellwether for this (it's plainly obvious to me that Obama/Biden is far more concerned about civility than McCain/Palin, whose entire campaign strategy has been rife with incivility).  Only time will tell for certain.