What Happened to Civility?
When South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson interrupted President Obama's address to Congress by shouting "You lie!" last week, at least one man was elated.
"I thought, 'Great, now the notion of civility may be back on the national agenda,'" says P.M. Forni, who heads the Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, an effort that promotes etiquette.
After last weekend, Forni might want to hire extra staff. It looks like incivility is storming the gates.
First came tennis star Serena Williams, who lost her U.S. Open semifinal to Kim Clijsters on Saturday not with an errant shot on the last point, but because of a blistering salvo at a line judge who had called a foot fault on Williams.
Williams' expletive-laced tirade threatened the woman with bodily harm. The tennis player, who was fined $10,500 and went on to win the tournament's doubles championship Monday with her sister Venus, initially issued a lukewarm apology. Then, in a statement Monday, she apologized more directly and said her behavior was "inappropriate."
On Sunday night came rapper Kanye West, who bum-rushed the stage at Radio City Music Hall during the MTV Video Music Awards to interrupt Taylor Swift as she accepted the statuette for best female video. West snatched her microphone and ranted that Beyonce should have won.
West subsequently apologized to Swift via his blog, saying, "That was Taylor's moment and I had no right . . . to take it away." But, he said, "I'm just real." On the premiere of The Jay Leno Show Monday night, the rapper added, "It was rude, period," and told Leno he wants to take time off to analyze "how I'm going to make it through the rest of this life."
Unfortunately for Wilson, these latest examples of boorish behavior haven't let him slip into pop culture's comforting shadows. Today, the House is scheduled to vote on a "resolution of disapproval" of his actions. Wilson says his apology, which the president accepted, is all that should be asked of him.
Individually, any of the events might have faded quickly into the global noise of Tweets, blogs and other digital gossip. But their back-to-back-to-back nature, as well as their high-profile forums, raise the question: Are we a nation of boors - or just keeping things real?
"I don't think society is coming off the rails," says Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post and a principal at the Emily Post Institute, which monitors the nation's P's and Q's.
"These three events were bad, but the reactions to them were significant in that people were not impressed," says Post, who points to everything from campaign donations to Wilson's opponents to a flurry of posts from celebrities who were appalled by West's behavior. (On her blog, pop star Kelly Clarkson blasted West for interrupting Swift and asked him, "What happened to you as a child?? Did you not get hugged enough??")
But perhaps the most poignant sign that civility lives was Beyonce's response to West's stunt. After taking the stage at the VMAs for her video-of-the-year win for Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It), Beyonce brought Swift, 19, back on stage so Swift could have a do-over on her thank-you speech.
"Kanye stole Taylor's moment, but Beyonce stole it right back," Post says. "That's an inspiration for anyone who would let all this bad behavior get them down."
Her gesture indeed turned heads.
"It's another reason to respect Beyonce," says Miley Cyrus, another teen pop star who had her own run-in with incivility recently when actor/singer Jamie Foxx told her (in crude terms) to grow up. His comments came on satellite radio, after Cyrus complained that she hadn't gotten to hang out with the rock group Radiohead at the Grammy Awards.
Cyrus says she hasn't seen the video of West's interruption, and doesn't plan to.
"I don't want to give it another YouTube view to support (such) drama," she says.
A desire for attention
For Swift, West's act has had the effect of a homecoming queen getting tripped by the school bully. Her reward for staying cool could even be the Country Music Association's next Entertainer of the Year award, says Charlie Cook, senior manager of country programming for KKGO radio in Los Angeles.
"The country music community could rise up and say, 'Kanye, watch this!'" he says. "She's a smart woman, and I think it took her two seconds to realize that if she kept her mouth shut, it was going to be better than anything she possibly could have said."
A bit ironic, considering that it's typically the outburst that gets the publicity. And wanting more of the spotlight is precisely what motivates many of those who make a scene as West, Williams and Wilson did, says Letitia Baldrige of the executive consulting firm Baldrige&Lewris.
"Two things are happening: One is a mad desire to be the center of news, and the other is a sense among these people that because they are successful, they can get away with anything," says the veteran etiquette maven, who was first lady Jacqueline Kennedy's social secretary. "I've been around a while, so I've reached this level of cynicism proudly. But I do think that at some point as a society we'll hit a wall and turn back. Something will happen to make us stop and examine our behavior."
How we got to this place isn't a mystery, says Forni, author of The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude.
"American society is among the most informal in the world, and often that informality crosses over into incivility," he says. "Now, you add the informality of the Internet to this culture, and all bets are off. It's an age of total disclosure and total expression, with very little concern for the feelings of others."
The ability to comment about others from a distance and with anonymity is the Web's hallmark and its poison, says Jerry Bowles, co-founder of SocialMediaToday.com, which keeps tabs on the impact of social media on society. Bowles' recent blog post lamented the recent erosion of civility.
"The Web seems to turn most people into adversaries, and in doing so, we tend to lose the ability to really talk to each other," he says. "This is particularly true for politics on the Web, where the comments tend to run to the extremes and sometimes can be downright seditious. I find it scary."
Is there any antidote to such venom?
"It starts with an apology," Forni says. "That is what restores the bones of civil society."
Post agrees, noting that West's blog apology to Swift hardly counts, and if anything seems to keep the focus on its author and not the mea culpa.
"A Tweet just brings it all back to you again," she says. "It should be in person or on the phone."
A purpose behind the outbursts?
West's transgression did rock the celebrity crowd, which tends to defend its own and even glorify edgy behavior, says Chris Willman, a blogger for Yahoo Music who says West told him to "die" after Willman wrote a negative review of West's work.
"In the back of Kanye's mind, he figures anything he does can be written off as, 'That's just Kanye being Kanye,'" Willman says. "But because he is such a popular and respected figure, it took real rage for these fellow celebrities to come out against him."
Willman adds that whether it's West or Wilson or "anyone, really, it seems like people are turning into modern-day Howard Beales," a reference to the crazed news anchor in the 1976 film Network who urges viewers to repeat after him, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore."
"If you have an outburst in public, there's a certain element of your fan base that expect it and will probably love you for it," says Willman, citing Wilson's quasi-celebrity among some conservatives - a sentiment that echoes raucous "town hall" meetings in which boisterous critics have blasted Democrats' plans to overhaul the health care system.
"For West, this could be the beginning of a true chastening," Willman says. "But for Wilson, it could be the beginnings of him as a true cult figure."
That may be difficult for some to swallow. After all, Wilson insulted the president to his face in a forum - the House floor - with a strict code of conduct. Lawmakers are required to address each other in the third person. (Which is why, as C-SPAN junkies know, politicians often address each other with stilted phrases such as "My distinguished colleague" from such-and-such state.) What's more, they are admonished to "refrain from discussing the president's personal character."
All of which made Wilson's outburst all the more shocking - and not just to Democrats. "I cringed," said Rep. David Dreier of California, the top-ranking Republican on the House Rules Committee.
"Wilson's comments would seem so much more severe than West's or Williams'," says Alan Light, a music journalist and former editor of Vibe and Spin. "After all, in the pop-culture world you almost have to create controversy or no one will pay attention."
West comes out of a hip-hop tradition that speaks "truth to power, but hip-hop is mainstream now," Light says. "Swift is hardly the person you interrupt to make the point that your friend's video is better. His is not an underdog voice."
As for Williams, Light notes that she's merely following in the footsteps of tennis bad-boys John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. "Was it the severity of the language that made it so bad?" he asks. "Because she's hardly the first to yell" at a line judge.
For CBS tennis commentator Mary Carillo, who believes Williams should receive a stiffer fine and be suspended, tennis has the obligation to censure any player who violates a code of conduct. "I have always admired what a fighter Serena is, and how fair she and her sister are," Carillo says. "And there's no question she felt under pressure as she was losing to someone who had just become a mom and gotten back into the game. So it was an aberration.
"Having said that, that lineperson felt threatened. She felt fear," Carillo says. "I've got a couple of kids, and I see thuggery on many of the TV shows they watch. So, no, it's not OK to say, 'That's just the way society is today,' and leave it at that."