Moving past our summer of incivility

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?

The latest bout of hand-wringing about What’s Happened to Our Society has focused on our new axis of incivility: Joe Wilson, Kanye West and Serena Williams.

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.

20 comments Add your comment

Redneck Convert (R--and proud of it)

September 21st, 2009
10:26 am

Well, if these libruls would give up on health care reform and junk like that, we could all be civil again. Long as us Conservatives get what we want, we won’t be arguing or shouting anybody down.

Have a good day everybody.


September 21st, 2009
10:44 am

At a time in our nation, when it was at its greatest, right after world war II, the people were most courteous and self-effacing, the heroes were humble, the media was kind. Now, at a time when the nation as a whole is considered materialistic, and is on its knees, the individuals in it, each of them, think of themselves as demi-Gods, concerned mostly with making a “splash” on any number of media, and for doing any number of disgusting things. Go figure.


September 21st, 2009
11:20 am

“Perhaps worst of all, there’s been the steady chorus of “racist!” and “Nazi!” from scoundrels who apparently have nothing intelligent left to say.”

We are who we are.

Add “commie” & “liar” to the list & I would say you are 100% correct.
You have about 20% on the “right” edge & 20% on the “left” edge who fit your description of “scoundrels who apparently have nothing intelligent left to say.”. And that is bad news. That is 40% on the edge who have taken themselves out of an intelligent debate of the issues.

Take Afghanistan. We may have over a 100,000 troops there in a few months. Good idea? Bad idea? Whether Obama and Cheney are “nazis”, “commies”, “racist” or “liars” has nothing to do with the debate over whether 100,000 troops should be in Afghanistan.

But a significant portion of our population get their jollies by making those statements. We are who we are.

Hillbilly Deluxe

September 21st, 2009
12:33 pm

The trend toward incivility has been growing for a long time in my view. It isn’t the domain of any one group or ideology. I don’t really know how we got started down this road but I think some of the politicians learned long ago that it’s easier to marginalize your opponent than to refute his or her ideas. Today’s society has a general lack of manners and respect for others compared to times past.

There seem to be people nowdays who see an “in your face” attitude as a point of pride. When I was growing up, you were free to act that way if you pleased but you also knew you would be expected to back it up. You would be called on it; the person you acted that way towards wouldn’t just take it. Today people feel free to act that way with no consequences.

Another example of this is the type language you hear in public today. Just a few days ago I was in a family type restaurant filled with people of all ages. A guy at a table I walked by was dropping F bombs like there was no tomorrow with women and children all around. He appeared to be in his 30’s, neatly dressed, clean cut, so you’d suspect he had been taught better at some point. Even as common as that has become today, I’m still somewhat taken aback when I hear it.

I think the blogoshphere has contributed to incivility too. People can hide behind anonymity and call each other names. Some seem to be more interested in getting off a zinger against their opposition rather than try to put forth their own argument as to whether something is or isn’t a good course of action.

The world would be a better place if we’d all realize the world doesn’t revolve around us. There are smart and decent people with a variety of different beliefs. One can disagree with them with out all the demonizing. And if it’s wrong to stereotype some groups, then it’s wrong to sterotype any group, including those groups that it’s politically ok to make fun of. Anything less is hypocritical.

We all need to do our little bit to try to improve things. True, you may be just one person but do what you can. As a man I knew once told me, “You be high class, even when other people aren’t”.


September 21st, 2009
12:50 pm

West should have been charged with disorderly conduct for rushing the stage, if I had done it — the bodyguards would have(rightfully) beat the crap out of me before the law took me away.

Wilson, no class – like hollerin’ Hell yeah at church when you agree with the preacher. There are rules to follow, without rules you have anarchey.

At some point, just saying “sorry” is not enough. It’s like rehab, everything is ok if you go to rehab.

Serena got what she deserved — a loss and a fine. 2nd offense should be a suspention.

It’s a small man who will belittle another man to voice his point of view.


September 21st, 2009
1:05 pm

Hillbilly Deluxe very well said!

It irks me how many people can’t even manage to utter the words “Thank You” when you’ve held open a door for them. When this occurs I’ve taken to very loudly saying “You’re welcome for my holding the door for you.” The most frequent reaction from the target of my comment is a look of death. My experience is that the person least likely to acknowledge holding a door is a black woman younger than 60.


September 21st, 2009
1:31 pm

Hillbilly Deluxe:
“Some seem to be more interested in getting off a zinger against their opposition rather than try to put forth their own argument as to whether something is or isn’t a good course of action.”

Very well said. And the kicker is that those wanting to get a zinger off apparently do not understand the issues involved. That becomes apparent if you look real close at the zingers.


September 21st, 2009
1:33 pm

I moved to Texas over the summer. I have seen a drastically different change in behavior. People are nicer, and use “thank you”, “please”, and “you’re welcome.” I grew up in Atlanta, and seeing this has been alarming. It makes me wonder how desensitized society has gotten to rudeness and inappropriate behavior. I watch television and the popular characters are the rude, vile, unscrupulous ones. Will people ever realize that this behavior is unacceptable?

The Snark

September 21st, 2009
3:25 pm

Good column, Kyle.

I think it was Shelby Foote, the historian, who said in Ken Burns’ documentary that the Civil War occurred because “we failed to do the thing we have a true genius for, compromise.”

David Axelfraud

September 21st, 2009
4:26 pm

did kat rip them up?

David Axelfraud

September 21st, 2009
4:34 pm

Kyle, good column. Not great but good. Anyway, I have a question.

Where the “death panel” charges wrong from conservatives like Sarah Palin?

Especially since Newsweek is making an argument for killing old people.

The Case for Killing Granny

David Axelfraud

September 21st, 2009
4:35 pm

Correction Kyle: WERE the “death panel” charges wrong?

Michael H. Smith

September 21st, 2009
6:30 pm

Wonderful decorum for a change. Let’s see how long it last.

Oh about as long as it take for someone to get the better end of a debate, discussion or impassioned issue?

Michael Honohan

September 21st, 2009
7:37 pm

It is pretty easy to be civil when the discourse is between intelligent and informed people on either side. In fact, if you watch Bill Maher, he brings on smart people from both sides and the never call each other names. What gets people riled up is when their opposition spends their time just making stuff up. The Right does that in spades these days. Ok, I will contend that there was a time in America when the Left invented things to gather the tribes together. No political outfit has ever been succesful without some propaganda. But today, the source and motivation are not politic. The entertainment business is the source and ratings is the motivition. The difference between the left and the right is the left seems to know when Jon Stewart and Bill Mahar are joking. The right thinks Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are actually hard news people to take seriously all the time. They literally make things up to say just to be outrageous. The sad thing about their mindless minions is that they the phenomenal ratings of these clowns is because all these Americans agree with them. How suprised they would be if they could ever grasp the fact the many people watch them just to laugh a the buffoonery! Comedian Davis Cross can’t get enough of it.

But as should be obvious to any perceptive individual who has read my posts or my letter to the editor, I don’t find any of this amusing. One of the more annoying thing about obtuseness of the right is that they accuse anyone of who doesn’t buy into the misinformation of being a liberal or a lefty or a socialist. Realy good way to keep the opposition togther! Fight against the other people who lean toward the right.

I cannot be pigeon-hold into one box or the other, but I am one of these people described as socially liberal and fiscally conservative. The march two weekends ago on Washington was largely an expression of the latter part of that ethos. People are tired of the fiscal irresponsibilty of our government. Contrary to what the partisans wanted to display, this was not an anti-Obama demonstration. As one commentator put it, “this has been brewing for years and Obama just brought to a boil.”

I see two reasons why the Republican Party ranks have been decimated. The first is the lunacy, hate, and disinformation that “conservative media” has stirred up making moderates uncomfortable with the association. The second was absolute abandonment of fiscally conservative principle by the Republicans after they gained power.

Once upon a time, the Republican Party was the Party of Big Business. The fact is that despite all the greed and outright evil practices, big business is a big part of what built American into the great nation we are. So even if you didn’t like them, you could respect that stood up for what they stood for. Today, the Democrats are the party of Big Business as much as the Republicans. All the Republicans had left was the promise of limited and responsible goverment. When they did nothing about that, the rest of us walked out. And we know who remain.

But I strongly support the return of conservatives to Congress. The liberals may provide the social agenda we desire, but at what cost? We require a strong opposition to limit the scope. But the conservative have to be smart, factual, and ready to fight for the American People, not for the ratings at Fox News. {You don’t need to worry about Rupert Murdock, the liberal, Atheist druggies he employs over at the Fox Entertainment, along the naked boobs he prints in the Sun – such a moral man!, will keep his wallet fat.

So I plead again. Stop the nonsense. Drop the cries of Socialism, Obama being a foreign born Muslim, and the death panels. Stop telling us Sarah Palin is the best choice of 300,000,000 Americans to be the next president. Start looking to conservative intellectuals for cues instead of relying on TV and radio entertainers. That will accomplish 2 things. One, it will return people to the support of conservatives as we did in the 80’s and 90’s. Second, we can then rationally debate the issues with respect and decorum and I feel the need to call people names.

Footnote: for those here who are convinced I must be liberal because of my continual criticism here, rest assured I take the Left to task when I communicate with them.

Michael Honohan

September 21st, 2009
7:44 pm

“People can hide behind anonymity and call each other names”

Not this person. Any regular reader of the AJC letters section as well as the Editorial staff can attest that my posting name is the real me. I do not believe in anonymous speech. If you have something to say, you should be willing to stand up for it. I consider anonymous posters to be cowards. And who can take you seriously?

David Axelfraud

September 21st, 2009
7:48 pm

Michael Honohan, I agree that Sarah Palin is not an intellectual heavyweight. But so what, Reagan wasn’t either. Neither was Lincoln. The intellectuals seem to always be the worst presidents ie: Obama. He was supposed to be the smartest president ever and the guy is a walking talking disaster. If he is the best Harvard has to offer I would hate to see the worst.

Now, what conservatives would you like to see run for president?


September 21st, 2009
10:56 pm

It starts at the Top Kyle… when Bush sat on his Ranch in Texas while a whole city was under water……..He didn’t care…….his leadership showed.

When the Boys and Girls Clubs of America have their funding cut, after school programs get cut, and kids have no place to go…….but on the streets !

It starts here in Georgia at the top……….when a fish farm is more important than things like reservoirs, a mass transit system that works, and education.

More people will be coming un-glued, not just the wealthy !

Yes we are splitting apart…………thank the leadership !

Ayn Rand Was Right

September 22nd, 2009
8:16 am

Peter – where are your diatribes on no war when Obama is about to sacrifice thousands of men in Afghanistan by sitting on his hands. Why do you not demand he bring them home? I am just curious, as I cannot remember a post you made before the election without your “no war” mantra. Now that your guy is in, you are suspiciously quiet. Either pull the trigger or bring our boys home from the drug war Mr. President!


September 22nd, 2009
10:44 am


Good posting.

To you and Michael H (above), did you see this over the weekend: Is Conservatism Dead?

It’s a Bill Moyers interview that you might find interesting.

Michael H. Smith

September 22nd, 2009
3:59 pm

It is getting pretty bad when you have to slant the slant by calling it intelligent.