Photo: © 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation
I was in the Amtrak Quiet Car last weekend. The "Quiet Car," as the conductor pithily put it, means, "No cell phones, no fun!" Twenty minutes into our blissfully silent journey, this woman behind me makes a call. She was speaking in French, and I sort of wanted to use her transgression as a way to test what's left of my French skills. But the most primal part of me wanted to grab her phone, just as Kanye West snatched Taylor Swift's mic; I wanted to threaten to shove it down her throat, just as Serena Williams threatened the line judge with a tennis ball; and I wanted to yell j'accuse! in the same Southern cadence of Joe Wilson's bug-eyed, "You lie!" However, self-control prevailed, so I shot Madame a very pointed stare.
Kanye's interruption, Serena's threat, Joe's outburst, Madame (not so) Quiet Car: Does America need a time-out? Is rudeness on the rise?
Not exaaaactly. I'd say our capacity for incivility is the same as ever, but what is on the rise is our ability to express and bear witness to rudeness.
I'm not the first to point out that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, talk radio—all of these give us ways to behave rudely with immediacy, scope and, often, anonymity. We have more means at our fingertips to react without delay: We can tweet, text, phone or e-mail our nastiness, unfiltered. Our outlets for rudeness are on the rise, but so is our consciousness of it—and that's not a bad thing. That ubiquitous technology that enables us to be so rude, so quickly and thoroughly, also allows us to broadcast people's bad behavior. (Thanks, TMZ!) The boorishness of Kanye, Serena and Joe was immediately disseminated, deconstructed and debated. The public has shamed and judged them. Each issued apologies. (Although U.S. Rep. Wilson seems to spell his: "I'M $$$ORRY.")
But I think if our best answer to rudeness is self-righteousness, we're missing something.