Dear Drama Observers,
A common topic of discussion these days is civility . . . or its lack thereof. Things do seem to be getting worse [see: “Congressional Hearings, 7/12/18”] and perhaps that’s right. Or maybe it’s always been this way but we’re now more readily aware of it, what with the rise of social media and 24/7 cable news. We’ve all seen those pencil-sketch conceptualizations of Aaron Burr’s duel with Alexander Hamilton. But what if their showdown took place in 2018 instead of 1804? Who on the planet wouldn’t have seen the bystander’s smartphone video of a sitting Vice President gunning down the former Secretary of the Treasury?
That said, everyday incivility does seem to be on the rise and there’s much speculation in the world of punditocracy about why that is. I’m sure there are dozens of valid reasons, but I’d like to offer four:
We start out in life uncivil and are taught to be more civil with age. That is, we become civilized. Twentieth century philosopher Hannah Arendt once noted, “Every generation is invaded by barbarians—we call them children.” Part of the job description of parents is to civilize little these little “barbarians” into productive members of adult civil society.
But that doesn’t happen all the time. It’s easy to blame it on poor parenting but there may be more determinative factors that come into play. For whatever the reason, some grown-ups never grow up and become chronologically older than their developmental ages. They’ve not developed past their childlike barbaric tendencies to be self-centered, oblivious to their own shortcomings, and devoid of empathy. They are dominated by their primitive impulses to relate to others by blowing up or shutting up. In short, they remain uncivilized and carry those uncivil ways of relating into adulthood.
In this weekly letter, I call these folks Drama People. Civilized people can work together to find reasonable solutions to relational difficulties. Drama People, on the other hand, have only one method in their relational toolboxes—drama. Drama is, by its very nature, uncivil.
Let’s face it . . . dramas are fun to watch. I know it dates me to use this illustration, but I’ve always loved the Andy Griffith Show. What made the show work was Barney Fife who, if you think about it, was a flaming narcissist, albeit a somewhat benign narcissist. By that, I mean he was thin-skinned, pompous, arrogant, un-self-aware, and in constant need of having his ego stroked. Barney would commit some embarrassing blunder and Andy would see to it that Barney’s image was repaired by the episode’s end. Anyway, it was all good fun.
Barney (Don Knotts) left the show at the same time it started being broadcast in color. If you ever hear that Andy Griffith whistle theme song and notice that it’s a color episode, turn the channel. It’s boring. Barney’s narcissistic dramas, it turns out, gave the show texture and made it interesting and fun to watch. But without his dramas, the show was about as entertaining as a documentary on pencil erasers.
In many ways, incivility is synonymous with drama, which is entertaining. Like it or not, uncivil actions or words gin up more online traffic than those that are drama-free.
Once upon a time, incivility was frowned upon. Or maybe we’ve just convinced ourselves that there was such a time. But in our current climate, uncivil people are more often seen as heroes than jerks. We’re witnessing a normalizing of abnormal behavior, making acceptable that which was previously unacceptable.
We applaud public figures who “say what they think.” We’re less impressed by reasoned arguments and more impressed by snarky put-downs. So many people these days substitute insults for fact-based debate and applaud themselves for winning the argument. We love it when our guy “takes off the gloves” and “hits them where it hurts.” We’ve altered the biblical injunction from “bless those who curse you” into “curse those who curse you but do it ten times harder.” If we see angst on the other side, we say, “Their tears are delicious.”
I think this is all so grotesque. And ineffective. And childlike. Whenever I see someone on TV or social media engaged in a self-congratulatory strut after delivering a perceived-to-be-clever put-down, I have the strongest urge to write them and ask, “Does your mother know you act this way?” But then, I’d be guilty of the very thing I’m scolding them about—incivility. (But, between you and me, it would be fun).
Once upon a time (see previous caveat), we used to yell at the TV if we got upset about something in public life. Or we’d roll up the newspaper and slap it on the footstool. Or we’d vent our frustration to a neighbor after we had cooled down a bit.
Now, when we get frustrated, we pick up a devise and “say what we think” before giving it too much thought. If we know the people who’ll read what we say, we might (underline the word, “might”) be more cautious about what’s said and how it’s delivered. But if we have no relationship with our likely readers, then civility is less of a concern. We’ll not care that much about splattering people with our verbal projectile vomit if we’ll never have to look them in the face.
Anonymity gives people a way to be uncivil jerks and pay no price for their incivility. In fact, something closer to the opposite is true. Anonymous incivility often elicits instantaneous rewards from anonymous others who send back social media likes or thumbs-up emojis.
I’m sure there are plenty of other reasons, but that’s my quick take on why incivility is on the rise.
Till next week.