The late great Robert A. Heinlein had his finger on on the pulse of society, and was able to tell us succinctly what’s wrong in the world today. Amazingly enough, he pointed this out to us nearly 30 years ago, with the publication of his novel, Friday, in which two of his characters discuss how to spot a sick culture:
It is a bad sign when the people of a country stop identifying themselves with the country and start identifying with a group. A racial group. Or a religion. Or a language. Anything, as long as it isn’t the whole population…
Before a revolution can take place, the population must loose faith in both the police and the courts.
High taxation is important and so is inflation of the currency and the ratio of the productive to those on the public payroll. But that’s old hat; everybody knows that a country is on the skids when its income and outgo get out of balance and stay that way – even though there are always endless attempts to wish it way by legislation. But I started looking for little signs and what some call silly-season symptoms. [Emphasis mine]
I want to mention one of the obvious symptoms: Violence. Muggings. Sniping. Arson. Bombing. Terrorism of any sort. Riots of course – but I suspect that little incidents of violence, pecking way at people day after day, damage a culture even more than riots that flare up and then die down…
These are all things we’ve been experiencing in large and small ways for some time now. For every item in the list above, I’m sure you can call to mind several recent occurrences that you’ve read or heard about in the news. Good grief, if our current economy and the ridiculous legislative attempts to spend ourselves out of debt isn’t a poster-child for doom, I don’t know what is.
But there’s more to it than that, and as you might expect, Mr. Heinlein isn’t done with us yet:
Sick cultures show a complex of symptoms as you have named… But a dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than a riot.
This symptom is especially serious in that an individual displaying it never thinks of it as a sign of ill health but as proof of his/her strength.
This may seem like a little thing–a tiny annoyance to be lived with. But it seems that this kind of sickness starts at the top: at home as well as in government. When adults abidcate their roles as parents, turning that job over to schools, daycare centers, home computers, and television; when parents attempt to be “friends” rather that parents to their kids; when parents are still children themselves; all these things lead to, among other dire outcomes, the loss of manners and civility, and the rise of thuggish behavior, crudity, boorishness, disorderly conduct, and a coarsening of public discourse.
And why is civility in society so important? Of course, Heinlein has an answer to that as well:
Moving parts in rubbing contact require lubrication to avoid excessive wear. Honorifics and formal politeness provide lubrication where people rub together. Often the very young, the untravelled, the naive, the unsophisticated deplore these formalities as “empty,” “meaningless,” or “dishonest,” and scorn to use them. No matter how “pure” their motives, they thereby throw sand into machinery that does not work too well at best. [Time Enough for Love, 1973]
Given what I’m seeing these days — in the public sector especially — if civility were the hallmark by which our society were to be judged, I don’t think we’d even be able to scrape by with a passing grade.
Our culture is sick, possibly even dying; there’s no denying that. And there seems to be precious little we can do, or that we as a people want to do, to effect a cure.
Clearly, this is the public discourse version of the Broken Window theory. We could clean up our act if we wanted to. But sadly, a very visible, very vocal, very popular, and very influential minority of society (think Hollywood, Washington DC, the recording industry, and professional sports) are not terribly invested in having a vibrant and healthy culture. But they are the arbiters, the trend-setters, the emperors of what little culture, or anti-culture, still exists.
And so… Ave Imperator! Morituri te salutant!