The Death of Civility
We’ve all witnessed mind-numbing headlines that remind us of the downward spiral of our culture, but, somehow, this one, which I saw the other day on the internet, did it for me.  

An 81-year-old Paynes Creek man died today after hitting his head during a fight with a 70-year-old man over a parking space in the parking lot of the Redding, CA Costco store. Witnesses told police Robert Leonard Mix was sitting in his Dodge pickup waiting for a parking space, which was causing congestion in the lot.  Gerald Eugene Carpenter, 70, of Lakehead walked by the pickup, hitting Mix on the arm. The two began arguing about Mix’s truck blocking traffic and Carpenter challenged Mix to a fight, police said. Mix got out of the pickup and tried to hit Carpenter with a metal cane but Carpenter grabbed the cane and both men fell. Mix hit his head on the pavement and was taken to Mercy Medical Center in Redding, where he underwent emergency surgery for the head injury.  He was on life support until he died today, police said.

This had to be the jump-the-shark moment for decency in our society.  Two senior citizens (who are supposed to know better), at 11:00 AM on a Monday morning, fight each other over a parking space, at a Costco, no less (could there be any more insignificant cultural value than a parking space at Costco?), and one of them ends up dead.

“Can we all just… get along?” said (the recently deceased) Rodney King, famous for not “getting along” with the police, his wives, girlfriends and Korean store owners, before, during, or ever since his beating.  The subsequent trial and acquittal of the cops who beat him, touched off the worst rioting my adopted home town of Los Angeles has ever faced.   Fifty-tree people died in the riots, thousands more were injured and property damages were over $1 billion.  Sorry, Rodney, but I guess we can’t all get along, because it seems like not many of us are trying very hard to do so.  In fact, many of us are walking around, ready to blow at the slightest provocation.  And many others of us are reveling in (and/or making money off of) being either offended or offensive.  

Right now, our nation is waiting for developments in the case of Trayvon Martin, who was shot dead in Sanford, FL by George Zimmerman.  Was it self-defense, as Zimmerman claims?  Or was it a racist killing, as others claim?  There’s already been a lot of outrage on both sides of the issue.  Nobody really knows for sure what happened.  We’ll all just have to wait for the trial to find out more.  But I know one thing for sure -- here’s what didn’t happen:

 “Excuse me, young man.  I’m George  Zimmerman, neighborhood watch volunteer, and I haven’t seen you in the neighborhood before.  Can I help you in any way?”

“No, thank you, sir.  My name is Trayvon Martin, and I’m staying with some of your neighbors a few houses down.  I’ve just been to the store to buy some Skittles.  Would you like some?”

“No thanks, Trayvon.  Sorry I inconvenienced you.  Have a good night.”

“Good night, Mr. Zimmerman.  Nice meeting you.”

Why didn’t it happen that way?  Because too many of us, like the geezers at Costco (and perhaps like George and Trayvon), are walking around, looking for a fight.  We’re perpetually on boil, waiting to blow up at the slightest provocation.  We’ve forgotten how to treat each other with civility, and we’ve forgotten that there are very good reasons for self-control.  I don’t know what happened between Trayvon and Zimmerman, but my guess is that the word mofo (in its unabbreviated form) was used more than once.  One of them acted offensively, one of them got offended (does it matter which was which?) and one of them ended up dead.   

We shouldn’t have to have confrontations between strangers in which one of them dies to tell us that, unless we change our behavior toward each other, our culture is in serious trouble, and it’s not going to get better until we acknowledge the situation and decide that we need to make some changes.  

Now, two old guys battling it out in the Costco parking lot certainly wasn’t the first time strangers got into it over a traffic issue: Oedipus killed his father, King Laius (who he did not know was his father), when they argued over which of their chariots had the right of way on the road to Thebes.  But between the story of Oedipus (426 BC) and today, some smart and enlightened people realized that if we didn’t have a set of standards of behavior, that we were all doomed.  You may remember that the killing of King Laius by Oedipus brought disaster on Thebes.  The beating of Rodney King brought disaster to South Central LA, and the killing of Trayvon may yet bring disaster to Sanford, Florida. 

Centuries ago, when we were barely out of The Dark Ages, society somehow realized that it was a good idea to develop a set of cultural values of politeness and respect, so that we didn’t treat each other like animals.  The word “gentle” was something that people actually aspired to be, as in: gentleman, or gentle lady.  Our forbears realized that the law of the jungle was a damn poor way to run a society.  

But in recent decades, our “enlightened” culture has seen fit to accept or even to celebrate the most ridiculous and obnoxious behavior (Alec Baldwin, Chris Brown, Lindsay Lohan, Kanye West, Charlie Sheen, and too many other narcissistic personalities to list here) while depicting people who act decently toward each other to be saps.  As if the only way you get ahead in life is by knocking someone else down.

Here’s what I’m sick of our culture venerating: edgy, outrageous, cool, hardcore, bad-boy, pushing-the-envelope, brash, cutting edge, dangerous, in-your-face, awesome, type-A jerks.  We need a better standard than the junk culture we're coming to accept as the norm.  Our parents and grandparents had Emily Post to tell them how to behave toward each other.  Who do we have as our cultural arbiters?  Do we even see the issues of civility and behavior raised in the media?  Please tell me where.  Our parents' generation had game show panelists like Orson Bean, Steve Allen and Bennett Cerf.  We've got Simon Cowell, Cee Lo "F**k You"Green and Howard Stern.  Progress?  Not exactly.

Why are we, as a society, ever obsessed with the kind of food we put into our bodies, but we don’t seem to care what kind of decency-sucking garbage we put into our heads that alters the way we treat each other?   We criticize junk food, but consume junk culture.  If we can’t act civilly toward each other, and treat each other (especially strangers) decently, then we’re on the highway to hell.  Which, since a song of that name became a hit rock anthem from AC/DC, should tell us something.

No, I’m not asking for censorship, other than self-censorship.  But I would like to return to our former standards of civility.  And I would ask that when we encounter strangers, that perhaps, in order to save ourselves as a culture, that we owe them respect and courtesy.  And I would also ask those arbiters of our culture, the critics, the reviewers, and the powers-that-be who decide what goes on in the media, books, television, film and music, to consider that by endorsing and celebrating obnoxious, violent and angry junk culture, you’re doing nothing more than peeing in your own swimming pool.  And you’re encouraging lots of others to join you in the act.  Who wants to go for a swim in that?

06.21.12