Whatever Happened to Polite?

hater3For 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 headhater1 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.

This Generation and the Light at the End of the Tunnel

We do not live in a sophisticated age.  It’s a shame, but it’s true.  Our intellectual prowess is centred on finding the E! News app for our Smart Phones.  Our curiosity is confined to Kim Kardashian’s matrimonial motivation.  Our music is repetitive; our films derivative and our artistic vision still focused on Paris Hilton’s bum (although we’re all getting a little jaded with that.)  In comparison to most of recorded history, our time is, like the Dark Ages, distinctly low-end.  This is no sin, by the way.  As just about everyone has cliched (about almost everything) in the last six months: “It is what it is.”  So I come not to bury our time, but to praise it.

A Mogul like luxury covers our brutish world.  It disguises the crude nature of life in the 21st century.  We believe, therefore, that living vertically — with running water — makes us culturally superior to those in history who didn’t.  However, as convenient as peeing inside on a cold winter night might be, it has nothing to do with our contribution to the continuity of the human experience.  Simply put, we’re barbarians with indoor plumbing.

Just look around.  Ours is an angry world, thinly veiled by repeated assurances of tolerance.  Our conversations are so laced with profanity they’re incomprehensible.  We constantly call each other names — off-handedly.  “Bitch” is an all-purpose descriptive, eagerly applied across the genders, and it’s the mildest of our nominals.  Anatomical insults are mandatory in any conversation, just to demonstrate our total disregard not only for the opposing opinion but also for anyone who espouses it.  In the same vein, we conduct our disagreements with loud not logic, shouting like Visigoths to show the passion of our principles.

Sexually, we behave like parochial tribesman, mistaking smut for sophistication.  We hang on every slyly exposed curve of the female body, giggling like villagers at everything from a skirt lifted on an unexpected breeze to heavy-handed wardrobe malfunctions.  To prove our sophomoric enlightenment, we’ve made female breasts de rigueur in visual entertainment (everything from commercials to sitcoms.)  Likewise, gratuitous nudity is a Cable TV staple and amateur porn a celebrity necessity.   We’ve turned sensual privacy into random exhibitionism, based on a smirking philosophy dedicated to underhanded titillation.  Sex is so overvalued in our society it’s no wonder young people are too confused to do it properly.

Meanwhile, we’ve undervalued education.  Scholars are labeled nerds or geeks or worse.  They have taken such a back seat to the beautiful among us that recently the number one career ambition for girls in North America was Reality TV star.  The Kardashians might be smart business women (which I think they are, BTW) but obviously that isn’t the role model message they’re providing.  It’s common knowledge that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of school, a fact pointed to with pride by every never graduated student with visions of grandeur.

And what is our vision of grandeur?  Indolence!  Couch potato-ing, social networking and gaming are now the world’s fastest growing activities.  More people play Farmville™ than actually farm.  More people are creating urban utopias in Sim City’s™ many incarnations than are at work on real urban problems.  And more people are engaging in criminal activity in Grand Theft Auto™ than are employed in law enforcement.  Our collective energies are being harvested by computers at an alarming rate.

This will be our legacy to the continuum of civilization.  As we persist in our relentless pursuit of leisure, we will demand more and better machines to do it with.  And not just handheld gadgets to take pictures or play games, but machines that will keep us alive, drive for us, cut our toenails and deliver pizza.  This is no sci-fi dystopian nightmare but a genuine and optimistic glimpse of our future.

History shows that the insatiable craving for spices, treasure and slaves drove the Europeans out of the parochial ignorance of the Medieval Age.  Their exploration and exploitation of the world funded the flowering of the Renaissance.  So, too, will our insatiable need for amusement drive our technicians to digital places as yet unimagined.  The playthings they produce will fund future and wiser generations.  When history views us (and it will) our monuments won’t be pyramids and cathedrals erected to the glory of our gods.  They will be miniature screens and gigantic TVs, lost in the dusts of obsolescence.  And when history judges us (and it will) we won’t be guilty of squandering our resources on smutty celebrities.  We will be praised for driving a mechanical revolution with our laziness.

We might be dumb, inarticulate and rude, but we’ve gotten used to sitting on our ass; now, we demand it.