I stumbled across the new pope’s book at a foster family’s home where I tutor. I might otherwise never have thought of reading it, but I picked it up and was intrigued by what I found as I quickly scanned it. I consider this an important tension under which Christians should live, and I was pleased to see I seemed to share his perspective. Of course, it isn’t an easy read, and I am learning quite a bit as I attempt to do so.
I heard that a recent survey shows that people think we are less polite. I say, “Well, duh!” Some of my young friends even tend to be rude. How many years, now, have we worried about road rage? I got dirty looks just for holding a door for a woman, 30 years ago, despite the fact that I have always held doors open for anyone of any sex. A college student, just yesterday, told me that an older man, a restaurant customer, told her not to call him, “Sir.” I often called my high school students “Sir” and “Ma’am” as a way of showing them respect, in general. On the other hand, I have always preferred first names, and “Mr. Wilson” seems strange to me even after nearly a decade as a teacher. I think of that as friendly and personable, but rudeness, in some form, has been replacing courtesy for most of my life.
Furthermore, anger and hostility, character assassination, and polarization set the tone in everything from talk shows to politics. We have become a society of victims pointing the finger and blaming others for just about everything. It used to be “not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Now it’s only about winning. Our representatives once spoke of the “loyal opposition,” whom they today compare to Hitler and despise openly. Good people can’t just disagree, any more; they must label their opponents as ignorant or criminal. Just persuading others to see one’s point of view stopped years ago; now civil disobedience itself has given way to outright violence, destruction, or in-your-face pronouncements, at the least. Angry, hateful, disrespectful rhetoric has become the norm, something far removed from politeness.
How is all of this possible in a culture that mostly believes that truth is relative, that there are no absolutes, and that right and wrong are personal choices? The Bible teaches to “Love your enemy” and to be kind, patient, and slow to anger. How can those who reject such truth and authority and who often say, “Don’t be so judgmental,” justify belittling and abusing those with whom they disagree? However, since they do, it should be no surprise that politeness is nearly a forgotten art. Actually, rudeness makes a great deal of sense, when you understand what has happened.
Perhaps we can explain the change, in part, by self-esteem gone amok. For more than a quarter of a century, advocates have argued that self-esteem is the pre-eminent quality to instill in children. In many places, it became the ultimate goal of education. A child could not be allowed to fail lest his or her poor ego be damaged. Grammar could not be corrected for fear that creativity and imagination would be silenced at the same time. In sports, praise for winners was bad because losers would feel bad. In California, I think, they even banned red pencils for the color red was a “feel bad” color!
Could it be that creating a generation or two of self-centered, confident but ignorant folks has also fostered a culture that is rude and contentious? Children who were always affirmed and never criticized or corrected never learned to respect the feelings and beliefs of others. Indeed, such children do not learn that sometimes others may be better, smarter, or stronger or how to deal with them when they are. If basic facts and skills are never learned, then such adults will tend to function as children, crudely, ineptly, and ill-logically.
Focusing on self-esteem tends to eliminate politeness, courtesy, and civility. The natural behavior of children is not polite, courteous, civil, or even nice. Rudeness in a very small child may seem cute, at first, but there’s nothing cute about a rude teenager! Trying to teach in a classroom of “uncivilized” adolescents is a nightmare. Dealing with the parents, whose “child is never wrong,” is worse. I almost want to gloat when those parents have to deal with the monster they have helped create! (I do laugh when I recall the advice of one child-rearing “expert” who advocated not having infants wear diapers so as not to repress them!).
On top of this cultivation of narcissism, educators are also promoting division under the guise of multiculturalism. None of this stuff will ever replace the “Golden Rule” for nurturing respect for others regardless of their sex, age, race, color, language, culture, social stratum or appearance. In fact, disrespect for others has increased as each “community” learns to see its own as victims oppressed by the rest. Here’s a case where the tampering and prejudices of adults might better have left well enough alone. Children are naturally unprejudiced; they simply do not see the differences that trouble adults. Children who cannot even speak the same language will play together anyway.
This is not to suggest that children are innocent. Every thoughtful parent has observed very young babies as they learn to cry simply for attention when nothing was wrong. If someone runs every time a child cries for attention, if every demand is met, the result is a “spoiled” brat, a very unlikable, unpleasant, self-centered child. Adult must teach kids not to take things that are not theirs, not to hit, kick, or bite, but instead to be kind and to share. However, prejudices are adult sins, which are also taught but word and by example.
Multiculturalism and diversity training are also an adult mistakes, not unlike self-esteem training. In these cases, teachers teach students to ignore inherent differences and inequities and “feel good” about everything uncritically. The message is “It’s just good to be you, even if you perform badly,” or “It’s good to be black, gay, female, handicapped, or whatever.” Learning to accept and be content with one’s uniqueness is, indeed, good and helpful. However, some are smarter, gifted, richer, more attractive, or have no physical limitations. Part of having healthy self-esteem is accepting and facing the challenges one must face because people are not all the same. Excessive accommodation to people’s limitations or differences of culture will not make everyone equal. Instead, it will and does create resentment, anger, and alienation. The so-called “have-nots” will begin to see themselves as victims and resent the “haves.” The “haves” will come to resent the “have-nots” for being treated like oppressors for simply being who they are.
These conclusions are not theoretical. Most Americans have learned to accept and appreciate others despite differences of religion, color, appearance, race, national origin, and many other areas of potential prejudice. At the same time, the angry rhetoric, increasingly impossible demands, and ugly divisiveness are getting more strident, from a very vocal few.
The increase of impoliteness is a loss of civility; it threatens a decline of civilization. What are good manners, after all, but the language of civilization? Without them, barbarism looms over us. Once, for example, elected officials referred to their adversaries “across the aisle” as “the loyal opposition.” The result was often statesmanship. Today’s manner is indeed barbarous by comparison, filled with insincere invitations to bipartisanship accompanied by vile name-calling. Athletes used to play for the love of the game, to exemplify good sportsmanship, and to appreciate their fans; now the most famous demand outrageous salaries, “trash talk” each other, and revile their fans, despite the enormous ticket prices they pay to support them. Music, television, and movies were once happy, uplifting, thoughtful celebrations of the best and the good; today, producers, creators, and performers dig ever-deeper into the muck of human ugliness to fill our eyes, ears, and minds with foul language, disgusting behavior, and every sort of strife and disillusionment.
From every quarter, rudeness and incivility assault us—from the streets, from schools, from the government, from our televisions, radios, and media, and, inevitably, from within our homes. Most seem to say, “Who needs good manners, anyway? Rudeness is just being yourself.” I think it much more serious. I believe our very civilization may be in danger. Courtesy and politeness are the basic tools for civilized discourse, without which human culture cannot function. In other words, without politeness and civility, war is the eventual result, and we all know that war destroys everything and everyone.