The Death of Civility

This week, I was in everyone’s favorite eponymous coffee shop, where two youngish men, dressed handsomely in business suits, were having a conversation right next to me. The exchange went something like this:

“I really got f----d over in that deal.”

“Well, I didn’t get f---d up, but I know what you’re saying.”

I suppose the wise thing would have been to shake my head to myself and mutter into my overpriced latte, but this time I decided to call attention to myself.

“Do you gentleman see that there are other people around you who might object to your language?”

The first one stared me down and said, “No.”

That was it. No apology followed. No lesson was learned. A curt “no” and my middle-aged (well, only if I intend to live to 120) indignation was dismissed. Period. And I’m sure when I left, I was followed by a comment of, “Who does that old b--- think she is, telling us how to talk?”

My husband says it’s all our faults. He points out that this kind of inappropriate language in the public forum originated in the 60’s with the free love/ free thinking generation that traveled to Woodstock and smoked vegetation for the first time – in public. And I suppose he’s correct, to a point.

Like most of my age cohorts, I know pretty much all of the bad words, I just don’t use them very often. It takes a lot of button pushing to make me lose my cool enough to have an expletive-laced conversation. My coworkers at the libraries where I’ve worked usually find it enormously funny when I am pushed to the point of a loud curse. It’s just so inappropriate coming out of my small, Chico’s clad personage. Yes, I tested the waters by using curse words in front of my parents, in my late teens, but – as one of my professors used to say – resorting to bad language is the easy way out. There are so many more acceptable ways to express anger and outrage than gutter language.

There are so many more acceptable ways to express anger and outrage than gutter language. It’s so much more original to use a Shakespearean curse: “You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I'll tickle your catastrophe!” How much cooler is that than calling someone the adult equivalent of a doody head, I ask you? Of course, my personal favorite in obscure media-inspired curses comes from John Cleese’s British export of the 70’s Fawlty Towers” when he would insult his long-suffering wife by calling her a, “clothe-eared bint.” The British may have bad teeth and an antiquated form of government, but everything sounds classier when it’s given a British turn of phrase, don’t you agree?

The use of inappropriate language seems to have been strengthened by the use of social media and networking. This came to light in my NYC-adjacent town, this week, when Santa Claus was banned from a local public school. This very small school had an annual tradition of inviting the Claus man in to take pictures with the children for the cost of $1. This event happened during school hours in a school that would be better served by spending time on school standards. Still, the children happily anticipated the event until the Grinch reared its head in the form of one (allegedly) Jewish parent who saw the event as exclusionary.

Rather than risk the ACLU banging on the door, the school district cancelled the in-school event and rescheduled it after school and supplemented the photo ops with a menorah and a Kinara (a symbol of the African-American cultural holiday Kwanzaa). Certainly, pictures of candelabra do not have the sexiness of a picture with the Jolly Old Elf, but it was an attempt at multi-culturalism however bland and forced.

This compromise did not, however, satisfy the neighborhood parents. A local listserv of moms turned the molehill into open warfare with horrifying invective hurled at the Jewish mother who protested the program and Jews in general. Truly, I have never seen, in my lifetime, such a collection of anti-Jewish sentiment and, as one mother said, it caused me to question my community and how welcome I am in it.

Not to be outdone, there was an immediate response from the Civil Liberties proponents arguing whether or not Santa Claus is a Christian or a universal symbol, and whether it is appropriate for public school time to be spent on Christmas-centric events. Somehow, the argument expanded to someone saying that America is a tolerant country, because you couldn’t get away with a multi-religious conversation in a Muslim country. Huh? Yes, it all escalated to include Islamaphobia.

And it didn’t end there. Several news outlets picked up the story and more countries were heard from. People who probably didn’t have or hadn’t had a child in public school in decades or perhaps ever began bashing Jews, bashing Christians, bashing “Mooselimes,” and bashing each other. The language was colorful escalating and totally, totally out of keeping with the spirit of the season.

As a child, in my overwhelmingly Jewish neighborhood, I remember visiting my Italian neighbor’s house to see her beautiful tree and marvel at the tiny train that went round and round the bottom. I knew that it was not symbolic of my family, but it was lovely to share the tradition with her. I visited a department store Santa only once in my childhood. I got overheated and came down with pneumonia and my mother, in her own special way said, “Never again,” and meant it.

But we routinely made trips to Philadelphia’s downtown to look at the lighted and decorated windows and see the musical display of lights in John Wanamakers Department Store. It was a tradition in a family that didn’t celebrate many traditions, and I loved it. And it didn’t convert me.

When my own daughter was growing up in a largely Christian neighborhood, I sent replacement crafts for her to do when her friends were making holiday wreaths and stockings. I made sure that she was secure in the knowledge of her own traditions, and there was no need for me to bash anyone else’s holiday celebration.

The Internet fosters a false sense of “ security.” Anonymity is more appropriate. People think their posts – especially when printed under aliases – are a cloaked way to spew venom and they use the Internet as their personal verbal garbage can. But words wound, whether attributed or submitted anonymously. Our culture has become more dangerous, more barbed, because people think that under the cloak of technology they can say whatever they feel. They express all the mean-spirited, vulgar and angry thoughts that in other generations they at least had to keep to themselves or share only with people who shared their vile opinions.

This holiday season has been a sad one for me. I thought that the one gift our generation had given to our children was an acceptance of many people and many traditions. It seems that I was wrong. Blame 9/11; blame the Tea Party; blame the Wall Street Occupiers; but we have gone from civil discourse to angry words in our political life, our media and our personal lives. We are no longer working to build a sane and accepting society; we are tearing down the one that we have, bit-by-bit and angry word by angry word. It pains me to think that another generation will learn from their parents and grandparents a lack of charity, a lack of tolerance, and a lack of genteel expression that really defines an elevated civilization.

I suspect that many people, this holiday season, deserved lumps of coals in their stockings and hot coals on their tongues to remind them that words are not harmless or meaningless.

Lois Rubin Gross is a librarian, storyteller and book reviewer.

Food for Thought

Grace’s Louisiana Bread Pudding