It's no wonder so many people are being less civil of late. I think it has to do with technology.
Civility in America dates back to George Washington's time. Washington authored a pamphlet, "Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation," to define and strongly advocate civil society in early America.
For years, American children were taught good manners by their parents, and adults defined themselves as ladies or gentlemen based on how well they practiced good etiquette. But technology has chipped away at such efforts. It has provided multiple opportunities for people to be rude.
Consider the invention of the telephone.
Communicating on the telephone is less personal than talking face to face. People are more prone to say nasty things -- particularly to telemarketers who have a knack for calling just as you sit down for dinner. The answering machine introduced additional opportunities for rudeness. Some felt it was rude to use the device to screen calls. Others felt it was rude not to leave a message when the machine picked up.
Telephone rudeness kicked into high gear when *69 was invented. By dialing *69, you could quickly identify the number of the person who had last phoned you. I got home once to find someone had hung up on my answering machine. Agitated, I dialed *69 and phoned it back.
"Hello, this is Victoria. Bill and I aren't in right now," said the answering machine. I didn't recognize the person and hung up. A few moments later, my phone rang. I picked it up.
"Hello," I said.
"Who is this?" said a woman.
"Who is this?"
"You called me and hung up!" she said. Ah, it was Victoria.
"You called me and hung up!" I said.
"Star 69 took me to you!" she said.
"Star 69 took me to you!" I said.
Victoria uttered several profanities, then hung up.
The cell phone soon made things worse. People, oblivious to their fellow human beings, prattle on in movie theaters, libraries and other public places. The Internet, e-mail and blogging kicked rudeness into an even higher gear. A new era of anonymity was unleashed -- a new era of nastiness and mean-spiritedness, particularly where politics are concerned.
Which brings us to this summer's town hall debates.
Many folks have been brimming with passion and discontent about President Obama's health-care reform ideas. They've gotten mighty heated at times. Proponents of Obama's plan suspect Republican operatives are behind the protests -- even though Republicans couldn't organize their way out of a paper bag.
Proponents suggest that the people standing in the way of "reform" are ill-informed and don't know what is best for them. But I think the cause of the discontent is simpler than that: technology.
Thanks to technology, average people have access to tremendous amounts of information. Anyone can download the Democrats' 1,000-plus-page health-care reform bill, as I did, and try to comprehend paragraphs such as:
"For purposes of this division, the term 'affordable credit eligible individual' means, subject to subsection (b), an individual who is lawfully present in a State in the United States (other than as a nonimmigrant described in a subparagraph though excluding subparagraphs (K), (T), (U) ..."
What is more worrisome is that there isn't really a health-care reform plan -- just a bunch of ideas, many of them unclear, packed into a massive document. Nonetheless, President Obama promised it would save money -- but the Congressional Budget Office said, flat out, that isn't so.
He assured us he didn't want the government to run health care. Then video footage surfaced in which he said he preferred a single-payer system. People began wondering what other Obama claims just aren't so. The lack of clarity unleashed a torrent of information -- truth, hyperbole and everything in between.
People attempted to voice their concerns to their representatives, but were largely ignored. That's when they began shouting. Some say the town hall incivility shows that our republic is broken. Some believe it's driven by special-interest groups that will gain if Obama fails. I think technology is the culprit. It allowed people to quickly conclude that Obama's health-are reform strategy is a stinker.
Obama has been hoisted by his own petard. How rude to do such a thing in public.
Tom Purcell, a humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. E-mail him at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.