It's official! The President of the United States has declared an "erosion of civility" in the land. So along with an economic downturn, the nation now has to suffer a decline in manners as well. Several bloggers have already commented on this issue and I too, writing for decades, can attest to never having been so beset by bands of mean-spirited readers. Maybe somebody is putting something in the water.
At first, raised as a gentleman, I simply ignored such impropriety but when I did, a whole mob of rabble-rousers crowded cheek by jowl onto my Comment's page. I had several sign a petition, one complained to the Better Business Bureau and another wrote the APA, they all complain to the editors and one clown actually said he was going to call a Press Conference! I've been checking but so far my picture (presumably right above the word NABBED) has yet to appear in The Times. Were I to combine all the comments designed to trash me, I'd have enough for a conference. And keep in mind that I'm a nice guy!
This reminds me of an earlier column I wrote dealing with the current spate of reality and survivor shows. Why would anyone want to see a fellow human in a precarious, perhaps even painful situation? Certainly it's no fun being stuck on a desolate island while competing in degrading games. And it can get even worse. Japanese television seems to have sharpened the genera into an art form with people eating worms, being covered with roaches and getting pushed down flights of stairs.
The fact is that being able to watch the other guy in such a spot provides a kind of thrill...a vicarious experience. You can make believe it's you and yet skip any of the real discomfort or even danger. Did you ever notice how no one pays much attention to something like an auto race until there's a crash? In fact, there is a German word for the pleasure that comes from seeing others in distress - Schadenfreude - which is a combination of the words for Harm and Joy. This is similar to having a desire for revenge and, if you should find revenge an unflattering emotion, you can just call it justice. In either case, there are two areas of the brain (the ventral striatum and the nucleus accumbens) that show increased activity when the other guy gets the short end. And, if you think about it, a good part of humor involves someone else playing the fool, being embarrassed, suffering ridicule or getting hurt. Taken together, these emotions may not be all that ennobling though they do indeed seem to be a part of our human inheritance.
But there is a delicate balance at work here and this is why something like the Jerry Springer show was so often condemned. Quite simply, he was said to go too far. I can explain this best by referring to something called the Just Noticeable Difference - or JND for short. Many years ago, more than a century actually, a leading psychologist of the day hypothesized that brighter people were also more sensitive. They could detect even very slight variations and would immediately notice any change in a whole array of stimuli while duller subjects would need a much greater degree of discord before becoming aware. Even today, it's generally assumed that the difference between refined character and crude behavior is one of proportion. The well bred, it is said, never shout. Jerry Springer and his guests shouted all the time...at each other and at the audience. This over-the-top programming was offensive to many because it far exceeded the JND. But it was also very popular with some demographics for exactly the same reason. Subtler programming would be lost on them but the all-important bottom line remained. The money of a Springer fan that was spent on the sponsor's products was just as good as that of more discriminating viewers making donations to Public Television.
Look At It This Way
Assuming the JND plays a role in just where the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior is drawn, it seems clear that standards of civility have definitely declined. It may be due to a vastly increased number of celebrity dummies; or less physically attractive but equally dumb politicians; or obstreperous louts in the media, or know-nothing-and-proud-of-it citizens; or telecommunications replacing personal interactions; or significantly increased violence in entertainment; or selective breeding of the LCD; or maybe even all of the above. In any case, for whatever the reason, such escalating discord does not bode well for the future.