The movie “Pleasantville” depicts a town whose residents, slowly at first, but ever more rapidly, abandon their old social mores. They effectively leave their stuffy old town behind in search of an exciting new place.
OK, now how do we get out of Unpleasantville?
But it’s been more than just a couple of rough weeks for propriety. Before Wilson, West and Williams came Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley in Cambridge, and shouting matches and fisticuffs at town-hall meetings.
Here in Georgia, we had the Wal-Mart baby slapper. Out west, a University of Oregon football player marked the game’s renewed emphasis on sportsmanship by punching a Boise State athlete who taunted him during postgame handshakes, and then charging the stands before coaches restrained him.
Perhaps worst of all, there’s been the steady chorus of “racist!” and “Nazi!” from scoundrels who apparently have nothing intelligent left to say.
Decorum has mocked its obituarists before, but this is quite a death panel.
Name-calling and fighting are nothing new, but these particular incidents betray a petulance that fits snugly with the narcissism, impatience and sense of entitlement that already mark our time.
South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson didn’t want to wait until President Obama finished his speech to shout about it. Kanye West wouldn’t sit in quiet disagreement with the judges at an awards show. Serena Williams couldn’t countenance a diminutive line judge making her forgettable day at the U.S. Open even worse. And so on.
We like to act shocked by these celebrity outrages, the better to forget that they reflect our own rudeness: trashtalking, road rage, anonymously berating strangers online, shouting down elected officials.
But if the old civility is dying, we haven’t defined a new one.
The Baby Boomers who brought us out of Pleasantville, only to wander for 40 years, seem incapable of leading us back out of this desert.
If ever there were a time for finding a new civility, it’s now, amid a difficult health-care debate. But we seem to be only adding to our divisiveness.
There are real differences of opinion over such an important policy decision. But these are only amplified by outbursts like Wilson’s shouting “You lie!” during a presidential address to Congress. Then the flames that Wilson fanned leap anew with gas from the likes of DeKalb Congressman Hank Johnson, who said the “logical conclusion” of letting Wilson’s comment slide would be to “have folks putting on white hoods and white uniforms again and riding through the countryside, intimidating people.”
With logic like that, who needs nonsense?
Those of us in younger generations have to decide if we want to spend the next 40 years screaming at each other like this.
Will we make excuses about the Internet, that its capacity for instant insults is too tempting, that feeding one another’s rage doesn’t matter if it’s done without faces or (real) names?
Will we continue to reward celebrities with extra exposure for committing high-profile meltdowns? You know the drill: A Kanye West goes out of his mind on national television, then gets to go back on national television to explain just how sorry he is.
So far, not so good. But remember this: The danger of having no uncrossable lines is not that we will slam violently into each other. It’s that we will move unbridgeably apart.