A friend recounted an experience during Honors Day ceremonies at his child’s school. While kids are up there on the stage giving short acceptance speeches for this or that achievement, a woman in the audience — and surely you already know where this is headed — gets a call on her cell phone . . . which she answers, and then proceeds to carry on a conversation, oblivious to circumstances or surroundings, and above all to anybody else in the room, including the children.
The experience left my friend, and his recounting of it left me, disgusted and dumbfounded — and not even remotely surprised. This kind of casual boorishness is by now so routine that we hardly even remark on or react to it any more.
Given that so many people still claim (thank God) to be annoyed by such behavior, the question naturally arises: Who are the numbskulls still doing it? And is there some version of natural selection that will eventually take them out of the gene pool?
If it seems I’m singling out cell phones again, I’m not. There are three of them in our household. But I am interested in what might be called the technology of incivility — the toys and tools that, if they don’t actually make rude people ruder, at least amplify the effects of fundamental rudeness to deafening and potentially dangerous levels.
Former Miami Herald columnist Joel Achenbach wrote a piece almost 20 years ago called "Creeping Surrealism" — a painfully funny examination of how we seem to be slipping toward a cultural twilight zone where the difference between reality and illusion no longer matters. He cites a "technology of falsehood" — the tricks that make fiction look like truth and truth look like fiction, in politics, advertising and mass media, until we're weary of trying to make the distinction anymore.
Something like that might be at work in the realm of social disintegration. I think the technology of incivility is in some ways like a firearm: No gun ever jumped up by itself and shot somebody, but when a gun is more immediately accessible than self-control, many an otherwise minor altercation has turned into murder.
Think about the proliferation of gadgets that give you the power to encroach on the lives of others: huge, powerful cars to tailgate and cut people off with, kazillion-watt speakers to rattle their homes and bones with, speaker phones to make what should be private conversations public with. (I guess I should include laptop computers, to end sentences with prepositions with.)
Technology, which has no inherent moral stature one way or the other, is nevertheless a multiple threat because it gives us more ways to isolate ourselves from one another, and to shrink our individual and collective attention span. And it gives us multiple ways to vent aggression, as often as not against strangers who have little or nothing to do with what we’re venting about. Does that guy who roars up two inches from your bumper, when you’re not plodding along or blocking the passing lane or doing anything else wrong, have any real beef with you? No — but you’re there, and he’s in that car, and for whatever pathological reasons, he has to let you know it.
The same friend who told me about the school thing followed it up with this: Just a day later, he’s in a checkout line at a convenience store when a car alarm goes off out front. The car’s owner, in the same checkout line, lets this nerve-shredding racket continue, consideration for the other customers and the peace of the neighborhood be damned, until he’s finished. What do you want him to do, anyway — give up his place in line?
I’m certainly capable of rudeness, either thoughtlessly selfish or maliciously deliberate, and there are no doubt plenty of people who could call me on it. But there’s something about this need to aggressively inflict ourselves on others, who neither provoke nor deserve such treatment, that feels like a growing social dysfunction. That we seem less and less inclined to do or say anything about it feels like part of the contagion.