Once upon a time, a little Pollyanna-ish I know, I actually believed that most people were decent, most people were inherently good, and most people, when given the chance, were kind. I also believed in a) manners b) civility and c) generally good behavior in public and private.
Not that I assumed for a moment that I or anyone else was perfect or without flaws. And not that I believed any of us were immune to the occasional meltdown, or even two-year-old-style tantrum. And not that I assumed we didn't all harbor unkind thoughts in our minds: just that we didn't always speak our minds, especially when we knew that what we might say would be mean or nasty or just plain for no good reason. I am not talking about a political-correct kind of niceness that is insincere and shallow, but a deep down goodness that would ultimately rule the day. And I am speaking about a public civility -- even if one secretly wishes one could yell out in public.
I was raised on please and thank you. On dressing for the occasion (and that meant every occasion), on decent but interesting conversation and on letting others talk rather than hogging the discourse. I was raised to respect teachers and elders even if they didn't always deserve it -- especially as a young girl. And even though my parents were difficult and downright horrible to their children at times at least I learned which fork to eat my meal with and how to sit at a table and behave. I also, of course, had some wonderful learning experiences, most of which I took to heart.
I was also raised that men did not wear hats in restaurants, that none of us should talk with our mouths full (okay, occasionally I get so excited I forget that one) and that the customer is always right and is not to be treated as if he or she is an interruption of something else one would rather be doing, like talking on the phone to a friend or beau.
Alas. Of all of these quaint notions and more have I been disabused.
And most of my disillusionment is due to the reality of reality television and the immediacy of the Internet, both of which showcase the most horrific, ill-mannered, boorish, downright rude, and disgusting behavior of ordinary people every single moment of the day.
Once upon a time Jerry Springer was the epitome of bad taste. But, those of us who still gave a damn could convince ourselves that he was an aberration, that his show's guests were just ignorant trash of all colors who had no idea just how sad and horrible they were: people not anything like us. People who would do anything, say anything, just to get on television, even if they looked stupid and evil and cruel and downright ugly.
Then Springer-like clone shows sprang up. Then "real life" shows with the men and women vying for fame or fortune or love or....who the hell knows? And "tell all" (even if what you were telling was interesting to no one but yourself) was suddenly the new norm; no secrets allowed.
To top it off but the baddest, most selfish, most boorish behavior was the most rewarded. Girls beating up girls, models attacking each other, chefs insulting their staffs, those are just some of what is on offer today, and that stuff seems mild at times.
The internet with the possibility (and probability for most, it seems) of anonymity in which to cyber yell, scream, insult, castigate, and attack has made things all the worse. Where once we wrote our words and they were published on paper and we might, if we were lucky received the occasional letter to the editor, signed, disagreeing with us; now our words are published online with instant comment buttons for the deranged among us to send out whatever vituperativeness they wish at just the click of a mouse.
We can all be assholes and no one even needs to know who or what we really are. But those words hurt. They sting, they wound, the make me ache just reading them. I see a story or an article that someone has put his heart and soul into and then I read the comments. What I often find is that most of the commenters haven't even really read the piece and certainly haven't understood it. They are disagreeing just to be disagreeable. And they are very very disagreeable with cursing, insults, derogatory remarks, threats..... pure nastiness to its very core.
I have come to realize, belatedly, because I really do hate to be a pessimist, that the majority of people in the world, and certainly here in the USA, are not nice, not kind, and not interested in anything or anyone but themselves. They have no class, no manners, no sense of decorum, and not a smidgen of self respect. Joe Wilson is not an oddity. He is the norm.
There are more bad guys than good guys, more black hats than white ones.
I find that very sad and extremely disheartening.
A couple of days ago a commenter on one of NPR's talk shows did an exegesis of a phrase that rings out through all the reality programming on television. He had clips of dozens and dozens of different people chanting a particular mantra. What is it? I'm not here to make friends. They said in loud clear voices, with a braggadocio that was mind-boggling. Okay, you aren't on television to make friends: you want to win whatever the price on offer is. But isn't that obvious? Does general bad behavior have to be both telegraphed and boasted about? Isn't that awfulness writ large? So far beyond the pale as it be completely ridiculous?
Perhaps the end of people being decent to each other and even decent to themselves is over forever. Perhaps everyone will, from now on, feel the need to expose themselves on television, to be rude and mean and ugly and nasty just for the hell of it; to wear shorts and flip flops to the theater because everyone else does, and to change their baby's diapers on the table of a restaurant just because they can. Perhaps there will no longer be a voice of reason among the pushers and the shovers and the shouters and the haters. Perhaps the world as we thought we knew it, if we ever did, is over. Perhaps people really DO only get their limited information from one source and believe heinous liars and gobble up garbage instead of truth as easily as they stuff fast food into their mouths. Perhaps it is a waste of time to even try and be a decent human being.
But, of course, I don't believe that for a moment because if I did, I would become as solipsistic and selfish as anyone else. I could, I suppose, stop watching the news, and switch immediately from any show that offends me, but then I would be like the ostrich and we have enough of them as it is. I use the internet, I listen to radio, I watch television, I read newspapers and magazines because I like to know what is going on, even if the news is bad. But I comment in my own name and if I don't have anything constructive to say I keep silent. I say please and thank you, hold doors open for people, put my napkin in my lap, and dress up for synagogue. I tip well and make eye contact and try not to make trouble just for the hell of it. I do not always succeed in being completely well mannered and I do not suffer fools gladly. Rather than try to inform the ignorant or change the unpleasant I am now much more ready to slip out of their company forever.
But I know that my cohorts and I are in a vastly shrinking minority. While I have long been of the opinion that too much exposure is both dangerous and, well, boring, what I guess I hadn't counted on, was how evilly used the tools for the dissemination of information could become and how widespread the disease they would cause.
All eyes that can still see anything clearly should now be turned to the decline of the human race. Before nuclear holocaust or global warming destroy us we'll have already done ourselves in.