rudeness epidemic, lack of civility

Are Americans Becoming Ruder? Town Meetings Test Patience

September 30, 2008 12:00 PM
by Shannon Firth
With city council meetings across the country often exploding in anger, Americans debate the perceived decline of civility and how to deal with it.

Residents Spar with City Council Members

While debating the privatization of the city’s emergency medical service Sept. 2, Charles McAuliffe, a city councilman for Hackensack, N.J., shouted at a resident, “I didn’t ask for your fat mouth’s support.” The council called a five minute recess. 

Mayor Joey Torres of nearby Paterson, N.J., explained, “The decorum at our meetings can get rather aggressive. People do get hostile. We’re in stressful times because of the economy, the recession and our loved ones being shipped off to war.”

Fiery arguments at council meetings aren’t uncommon in other municipalities, either, and residents and council members around the country have been caught behaving poorly. In Middletown, Pa., resident Mike Bowman was removed for giving the Nazi salute to Council President Rodney Horton after being told his allotted five minutes were over. Horton said, “It was not only disturbing and offensive to everyone in the room, it was distracting.” Barry Morrison of the Anti-Defamation League called Bowman’s actions “offensive” and “inappropriate” but legally within his First Amendment rights.

Although Horton admitted he did not feel physically threatened, recent events elsewhere give officials nationwide reason to be wary. In Kirkwood, Mo., in February, Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton, a resident known for quarreling with the city council, opened fire at a council meeting, killing three city officials and two police officers and critically injuring the mayor before he was fatally shot by police. Arrested twice previously for disorderly conduct, Thornton had lost a free speech lawsuit only a month earlier.

According to The Record of New Jersey, metal detectors, time restrictions, arrests and classes on conflict resolution have all been implemented to help prevent similar tragedies. Northvale Councilman Roy Sokoloski explained his own strategy for dealing with difficult residents: “A lot of them just need to vent. I always try to keep a straight face and tell them I will look into their concerns and get back to them.”

Amid the shouting and curses, many wonder when our society became so disrespectful. A 2005 Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that 69 percent of respondents believe people are more rude than they were 20 and 30 years ago. Of those respondents, 69 percent blamed America’s rudeness on parents’ failure to teach manners, 44 percent blamed TV shows and movies, and 38 percent blamed celebrities, athletes and public figures.

Opinion & Analysis: ‘The Case for Civility’; necessary rudeness

In April, the Vanier Institute for the Family issued a report on Canadian teenagers’ increasingly worrying behavior, including stealing, threatening teachers, destroying property and otherwise being “aggressive and disruptive.” The survey faulted parents’ overburdened work schedules, dissolving communities, the decay of religion, stress, TV, the Internet, and video games. Vancouver Sun columnist Douglas Todd writes that polite society is declining and offers such evidence as “insensitive clerks, increased jaywalking, … road rage” and plenty more. He hopes to bring it back by offering 10 rules of civility from leaders such as the Dalai Lama, Gandhi and Barack Obama.

In January, Charles C. Haynes, a First Amendment Center senior scholar, applauded the presidential candidates for their civility in campaigning. Adding a parenthetical, “let’s pause here to knock on wood,” Haynes cited a new book, “The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends On It” by Os Guinness. He explains, “Civility doesn’t mean we all pretend to agree; it isn’t ‘niceness’ that papers over disagreements. Differences matter—and we should debate them openly and freely. But how we debate, not only what we debate, also matters.”

Professor Emrys Westacott of Alfred University thinks that rudeness has a purpose and thinks the idea of a rudeness epidemic is pure fiction. “They were complaining about it in Athens and Rome. People never say we live in such a polite age as compared to the past.” As a “case of intentional rudeness being justified by its long-term benefits,” he cites the situation of a sergeant training a recruit for combat.

Related Topic: ‘American Character Gets Mixed Reviews’

A 2005 Pew study examined America’s image abroad, measuring Western countries’ perceptions of Americans’ rudeness, violence, greed, honesty and hard work. The results: 53 percent of Canadian, 48 percent of Russian, 39 percent of Spanish and 36 percent of French respondents labeled Americans as “rude.”

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