Sick cultures show a complex of symptoms … but a dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than a riot … This symptom is especially serious in that an individual displaying it never thinks of it as a sign of ill health but as proof of his/her strength. — Dr. Hartley Baldwin, in Friday by Robert A. Heinlein
So I’ve just picked my daughter up from school this afternoon, and I’m headed over to the school where my wife is working to pick her up as well. There’s a boy, seventh- or eighth-grade and clearly from Charlotte’s school as well, walking in the street with his back to us — not across the street, but in the traffic lane as if it were the sidewalk, oblivious to the fact that there’s a minivan (mine) bearing down on him at 25 miles per hour.
So while wondering what Pokemon cards this kid traded his brains for, I move over in the lane to avoid pancaking him, and tap my horn gently to tell him, “hey, bruh — 2-ton vehicle right behind ya.” He moves over just enough that I can keep from killing him without having to swerve into the other lane. And as I pass, he smiles sheepishly at his own obliviousness and says “sorry” …
Actually, that’s all true except the last part. What he really did as I passed was glare at me and say “F*** YOU!”
I was enraged. I’m still enraged. Beating some sense into that little jerk strikes some part of me as very attractive (thankfully not the majority of me). He’s the one walking in the path of oncoming cars; I’m the one warning him that he’s putting himself in danger — and he cusses me out?!? I show some concern for a total stranger’s skin and I’m the bad guy? Would he have been happier if I’d hit him?
And now, safe in the comfort of my home and hoping he is in his (rather that ending up as the hood ornament on a pickup truck, which seems to have been his goal earlier), I think about the Heinlein quote I posted at the top of this piece and wonder, are we as a nation that far gone? Is Mouthy McWalkintraffic not an anomaly, but in fact an average member of our culture? Because it’s hardly the first time something like this has happened to me …
When I was growing up, in the 1970s and 1980s, there were certain unstated rules that pretty much everyone I knew lived by. You recognized someone when they spoke to you, even if you didn’t want to talk to them. Arguments were kept inside the house, so the neighbors weren’t disturbed. If you were a kid at a friend’s place, you obeyed their parent(s)’ rules. You screwed up, you apologized, and then you did whatever you could to fix what you broke (physically or emotionally). And if somebody was trying to go somewhere — walking, driving, whatever — you didn’t get in their way. There was a cultural underlayer of mutual respect, an acknowledgement that other people had the same rights as you and deserved the same respect.
Whatever happened to that?
It seems like there been a sea change in just the past twenty years, where that mutual respect is simply no longer there. People not only show no consideration for others’ boundaries, but go into attack mode if the boundaries are pointed out to them. Folks do whatever they feel like, without a thought as to how it affects others. Apologies for unintentional slights are used as opportunities, not for forgiveness, but for temper tantrums and personal attacks against the apologist, while attempts at correction of antisocial behavior are met with vicious recrimination or the cutting off of communication.
Now, I know I’ve offended a lot of people in my day. I have a weird sense of humor and a tendency to blunt speech (feel free to throw the word “Asperger’s” in there somewhere), and while I make every effort to rein them both in, there are times when I’ll say things that rub someone the wrong way. I never try to tick people off — but a clear conscience isn’t always enough. Been this way all my life, alas. But when I was growing up, or even as a young adult, I could say I was sorry, offer to make it right and it would be accepted, even welcomed. Now I’m usually yelled at, to the point that often nowadays I don’t even try to apologize — why set myself up for abuse?
Some might say that this is a by-product of Christianity’s reduced influence in our culture. Well, maybe … but the earliest example of a refused apology I can recall was when I was working for a Christian ministry. I was alone, taking care of some stuff on a weekend (during which the office was closed) when someone (a Christian, not an employee) came into the office unannounced and just about scared me out of my skin. When I asked if perhaps they could knock next time, they blew up at me for having the temerity to suggest such a thing, and refused any attempt at apology on my part. (And why was I apologizing, exactly? Other than he was a big financial donor …) I later even wrote to them (at my boss’s behest) saying sorry once again, but never heard a reply. So “Christianizing the culture” is probably not the answer — not if many Christians exemplify the problem we’re hoping to solve.
And it’s a problem, because … well, read the quote at the top again. Personal rudeness isn’t the sign of a sick culture — it’s the sign of a dying one. If Heinlein’s right (and in my gut, I think he is), it’s the last gasp before the barbarians overrun the gates and march into the city. “Dying” is a prelude to “dead.” And once something’s dead, what do you do.
Or … maybe death is the optimal solution. Maybe our culture is so far gone that it needs to die, because only when it’s dead and buried can it possibly be resurrected. Perhaps the only hope for America in the 21st century is the same as the only hope for the disciples after Golgotha: that God steps in, rolls back the stone and brings new life himself.
Of course, if that’s the case, the death still has to come first. Easter doesn’t happen without the Crucifixion preceding it. And death is not a pleasant thing to go through, no matter what’s on the other side. My hope would be that there’s another, less painful solution.
In the meantime, I’ll do my (mediocre) best to show respect, even if it isn’t reciprocated — and bite my tongue when it isn’t. You gotta do something.
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Sick cultures show a complex of symptoms such as you have named ... but a dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot."
“Pfui. I should have forced you to dig it out for yourself; then you would know it. This symptom is especially serious in that an individual displaying it never thinks of it as a sign of ill health but as proof of his/her strength.