The Death of Civility

By | June 30, 2014 | 0 Comments


There is danger in making generalizations on the basis of personal experiences. But there is equal danger in making no conclusions from our own experiences. How else can we learn about the world around us?

The plural of anecdote is data.
Raymond Wolfinger, economics professor

The stationary stationery.
I ordered stationery from a large office store. Weeks later, my letterheads were ready. I drove to the store and was directed to a counter. Behind it was a clerk who was busy with paperwork.
After waiting patiently for some time, I cleared my throat and coughed. When this produced no result, I said, “Excuse me, I need to pick up my stationery.” The clerk was unaffected. I returned to the cashier and loudly announced, “I want a refund if you don’t have what I ordered.” The cashier directed me back to the counter. After another wait, the clerk looked at me with a sour expression, reached under the counter and handed me my purchase – which had been there all the time.
Of course, there was no apology. Of course, I will never enter that store again. Of course, when the clerk is laid off because of declining business, he will blame the boss, or capitalism, or racism, or anything other than his own rudeness and laziness.
The non-threatening threat.
I used to patronize a car wash. For an extra charge, something called “spray wax” was offered. I watched as a flashing light indicated that “spray wax” was being applied. But one time, the light didn’t go on. I assumed the bulb had burned out and said nothing. But the next time, the light again did not go on. I explained this to the manager, adding, “If you keep charging for something you don’t do, I won’t come back.”
The manager, who was about 50 pounds heavier, six inches taller, and 20 years younger than I, glared at me angrily and muttered, “Are you threatening me?”
Amazed, I replied, “No, if I was threatening you, you’d know it.” Perhaps something in my eyes made him shut up. As I was leaving, the owner approached and offered me coupons for a free wash. I refused, saying that I didn’t want any trouble – loudly enough that other customers turned to look. From then on I washed my own car.
“You cut me off.”
Sometimes this is a legitimate complaint that a car cut in without leaving sufficient space to be safe. But often this is merely a way of saying, “How dare you get ahead of me!” To prevent this unbearable insult, many drivers accelerate to close the space and prevent the car from changing lanes – which is illegal and unsafe.
I used to signal well in advance of changing lanes, as required by law. But now I do this only when a police car is behind me – a very unusual occurrence in under-policed Los Angeles. At other times, I wait for a gap in traffic, change lanes and only then signal. This gives no time for the other driver to close the gap.
Exchange information after an accident.
A car rear-ended mine while I was stopped in traffic, hard enough to dent the gas tank. I got out and offered the other driver my driver’s license and insurance information. He spoke no English and had no insurance. So I copied all the information from his driver’s license, then wrote down the plate number and description of the car.
I phoned my insurance company. I made out the mandatory report to the Department of Motor Vehicles. I paid the $500 deductible, and the insurance paid over $1300 more. It turned out that the other driver’s license was phony, and the plates were from a wrecked car, so no one knew the identity of the driver or the owner. My insurance company and I were out the full amount of the damage.
The “uninsured motorists” coverage didn’t apply. I couldn’t identify the other driver, so I couldn’t prove he was uninsured. The next time I have an accident, I will copy the VIN number from the other car – assuming it hasn’t been altered as well.
Worst of all, the man who hit my car could get on an airliner using his phony ID. Homeland security? Don’t make me laugh. You can’t have it with IDs that can be bought on the street for $200.
Drive safely.
Some time ago, my wife and I were driving in the slow lane along a winding part of Sunset Boulevard. A fat man in an expensive sports car came up behind us, going about twice the speed limit. Though traffic was light, he came up almost to our rear bumper before cutting around us. This gained him nothing, and we pulled up beside him at the next red light. My wife said in a loud but not unpleasant tone, “Slow down.”
The man replied by spraying my wife in the face with a white substance, then driving off at an insane speed too fast to follow safely. Luckily the stuff was silly string, not pepper spray or oven cleaner. We phoned the police, who said they could do nothing unless the incident occurred in front of an officer. I asked the officer if I had to defend my wife by taking the law into my own hands. The officer said no, but offered no alternative.
Drive courteously.
My wife and I were driving home. The light turned green, and immediately the van behind us blew its horn. I didn’t react but promptly accelerated. I then made an incomplete stop at a stop sign, fast enough to get me a citation if a cop had been present, but not fast enough to satisfy the van driver, who again blew his horn. At this I tooted my horn once, while turning and giving him an angry stare.
At the next red light, the van pulled up on our right. The furious driver screamed insults at me and my wife, calling her a “punk-assed bitch.” We will have to answer for the sin of using rap “music” to teach a generation of young men to think of women as “bitches” and “hoes.” How much violence to women is caused, or facilitated, by these lyrics?
Fortunately I rolled up the window just as the man spat a huge glob of sputum, which hit the window instead of my wife’s face. I say fortunately, because (1) this saved my wife from being spat in the face, and (2) it saved me from either a trip to the emergency room or a long prison term. I am a patient man, but my patience is not infinite. This incident, like the previous one, occurred not at night on a deserted rural road, but in Beverly Hills in broad daylight.
If not courtesy, then fear.
In the Los Angeles area, no ordinary citizen can get a permit to carry a gun. Unlike 40 of the 50 states, California leaves this decision up to the whims of the local police chief, which means the whims of local politicians. Big campaign donors or show-business personalities, maybe − but you and me, no way.
I’ll bet serious money that such incidents are rare in states where law-abiding citizens are allowed to carry guns, after being screened and trained. Even a violent sociopath would think twice about spitting in the face of a lady who might be armed. If a few scummy people ruin things for the rest of us, a touch of fear might get results.
Dr. John Lott has shown that violent crime falls in states where law-abiding citizens are allowed to be armed. And even where this is not allowed, like California, men don’t spit in women’s faces in parts of town where gangs control the streets.

An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.
Robert Heinlein

Behavior is contagious.
A century ago, America was sparsely populated and largely rural. But now 318 million of us live mainly in cities, where offensive behavior is less tolerable, though surely more common. What to do?
I try to be courteous, and my wife goes further and greets sales clerks and wait people warmly by name. Usually this results in friendly behavior being returned. But bad behavior is equally contagious. And like other contagious diseases, innocent victims will be affected.

● When I drive in a less courteous, more aggressive manner, all the drivers around me are affected, not only those who are discourteous.

● When I go around wary of hostile people, I am less likely to be helpful to anyone, not only to people who are hostile.

● When I am aloof instead of friendly, people are less likely to be friendly to me, thus spreading unfriendliness.

● When I catch incivility, I am more likely to spread the contagion to others.

The only vaccine against incivility is to consciously push ourselves to be more courteous and friendly than we feel like being. Civility can be contagious, too. It won’t die unless we kill it.
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