For the last couple of days I’ve been rattling on about how people aren’t polite anymore. I’m sure it’s just old man nostalgia for a more genteel time, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out how we got from “please and thank you” to “Yo, bitch! Ain’t no thing.” I know language changes, usually for the better, but I also know that it’s the canary in the mineshaft, signaling changes in social behaviour and attitudes. Our language and the way we use it is a reflection of what kind of people we are. The fact that we’re rude says a lot about us; I just don’t know what.
Let me give you an example. There’s this old man. He spent his entire life devoted to his profession. He showed up for work, worked hard and never complained. What he did might not have moved mountains, but he did the best he could with what he had. Nor is he exactly what you’d call a saint. Actually, he doesn’t really have the same values as the vast majority of people in this world. However, he did try his best to live a good life, as he knew it, and to help the people around him do the same. Now he’s old and sick and too frail to work anymore. All he wants to do is retire and spend the last few years he has on earth in quiet contemplation — perhaps with his God.
It seems to me that we should have some kind words for this old fellow. We should treat him with a little respect. Whether we like him or not, or even know him, common courtesy tells us that we shouldn’t make fun of him. Why would we? I’m not saying we should be extravagant in our praise, but there’s no need to dis the guy. His retirement doesn’t warrant a bunch of snide remarks or clever wordplay wisecracks or cartoon sight gags. In fact, I can’t think of a single reason to verbally beat up on this, or any other, old man. Yet, our society has spent the better part of a week being as disrespectful as possible (Have you figured it out?) to Pope Benedict XVI — for no other reason than we can get away with it.
I’m not a Catholic (actually, I’m not much of anything) so it really doesn’t matter to me, but I would hope that the spiritual head of any religion (whether it’s yours or not) deserves a little reverence. Nothing I can think of, including atheism, is really a good excuse for bad manners. Nor can I conjure up a single journalistic purpose that was served by the headline: “German Shepherd Abandons Flock.” At least it was better than “Ex-Benedict” which was merely an idiot pun that still doesn’t actually mean anything. Then, of course, there were the editorial cartoons with the Pope subletting the Vatican, Craigslisting the Sistine Chapel and searching Catholicmingle.com — not to mention the series of faux tweets, Pinterest posts and late night comedians. After that it just gets tawdry.
Believe what you will about Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic Church, I’m only using this as an illustration of just how rude a people we’ve become. We call each other names, in the name of politics, insult each other in the name of comedy and laugh at injury and misfortune just because we’re bored. However, the worst part of it is we are discourteous off-handedly, as if we we’re shooing flies with our tails. Rudeness has become our automatic response to the world around us. We reserve no respect for anything and wonder when we are not respected in return. Unfortunately, as we get further and further away from “please and thank you,” it’s going to get more and more difficult even to respect ourselves.