Thursday, October 24, 2013

Coarser and Cruder

My Meditation Garden
-glorious blooms of autumn in the desert-

As I was coming out of a local restaurant the other day, I held open the door for the person behind me. She stopped dead in her tracks and just looked at me as her face lit up with a big smile: "Oh, thank you so very much," she said. "I can't remember the last time anyone did that for me." 

In that one brief momentary encounter I had a flash of insight. The simple act of holding the door for another person was so unexpected and so unusual as to make someone stop and take notice. My insight was perhaps we have lost sight of the importance of the simple practice of "good manners" in our everyday interactions.

When I talk about good manners, I'm not referring to an Emily Post handbook on the proper way to set a table or what fork to use. By good manners I mean the everyday ways in which we treat one another with decency and respect in a civilized society. And I do indeed wonder if we have lost a sense of the importance of treating one another this way; because if we have, we are on a slippery slope.

Yesterday, The New York Times published a letter to the editor titled "Bring Back Civility." The author of the letter opined, "We as a culture have grown coarser and cruder in tone. In many respects, our nation has ruptured with civility."

The author goes on to cite some examples of the "coarser and cruder" tone of our common life today:

The advent of digital communication has allowed us to engage in consequence-free hostility - hostile messaging, abrupt emails, caustic online posts and reviews have normalized an uglier and less empathic side of human behavior and colored our politics and entertainment as well.  Witness the humiliations routinely showcased on reality TV, the snarls of call-in shows and the acidic tone of popular blogs.

I think there is a great deal of truth in the claim that we have become a "coarser and cruder" culture.

I am sometimes shocked and amazed at some of the nasty, caustic tweets sent out everyday on Twitter. I read some of the comments on the various Google+ blogs and shake my head in amazement at the virulent disrespect people show one another. The nasty hate-filled commentary of people like Rush Limbaugh fills up the airwaves and fuels the fire of crudeness and coarseness.  "Road rage" and  "slamming a door in a person's face" are now the order of the day.

I say this is a slippery slope because a culture that does not practice everyday good manners, treating one anther civilly-with respect, is sliding down a slope that dead ends in barbarism. 

I am old enough to remember Stanley Kubrick's dystopian movie of the 1970's "A Clockwork Orange." It depicts a not-so distant future society overrun by thugs and barbarians who go around cruelly terrorizing fellow citizens. When I first saw the movie, it was chilling to imagine a culture in which people would treat their fellows so caustically and with such viciousness. At the time the movie seemed like far-fetched science fiction. Today I have this gnawing fear that Kubrick's movie may have been more predictive than I might have ever imagined at the time.

In the Baptismal Covenant, Christians take a vow to "respect the dignity of every human being." This "vow"is not only a model for a Christian way of life but for all humanity.  It is necessary for everyone living in any civilized nation to take this life-vow lest civilized people turn into barbarians. 

As I see it, we can all begin to honor that vow of "respecting the dignity of every human being"  by committing to the simple practice of everyday "good manners" - how we treat each other in the routine events of everyday life.  

So, guard against that nasty tweet, take a moment before sending out that caustic email, hold open a door for the person behind you, and maybe even say "please" and "thank you" from time to time. 

 Not courser and cruder, but kinder and gentler.

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