Periodically talk radio and other news sources erupt with discussions of the lack of civility and morality in society today. The impetus for these discussions may be anything from a security guard being trampled to death by shoppers stampeding into a big box store on Black Friday to the story of someone who dies on a busy street because no one stops to help.
Writers, talk show hosts and callers will bemoan the loss of common decency. They will wail about the sad state of affairs within society in general and the younger generation specifically. They will lament that people do not care enough about their fellow citizens to take the time to call 911. In addition to mourning the loss of basic decency in our country, they ponder the question, “How did this come about?”
Sociologists, psychologists and talk show hosts will argue that many of society’s ills are the result of family of origin issues. They will postulate and pontificate that the lack of two parent homes is the root cause of the problems. Or, they will claim the problem is due to dysfunctional two parent homes. Regardless of the speaker’s particular position, they will usually acknowledge there is a problem in this country.
People seem to feel rudeness, self-indulgence and insensitivity are character traits to be coveted. Family problems, school problems and the lack of good role models may contribute to the sad shape in which we find our society today. However, there may be simpler, more basic reasons for this shift.
In law enforcement there is a concept known as the “broken window syndrome.” Basically, it theorizes that failing to repair a broken window will lead to more windows being broken, other vandalism will occur and crime will move into the area. In essence, it says that failing to address little things, vandalism, petty theft, etc., will lead to larger problems.
It is hard to believe that ignoring a broken window can lead to crime in the streets. Still, anecdotal evidence supports the theory, and many police agencies and other entities have based crime reduction and quality of community life strategies on the broken window theory.
This concept can be applied to situations beyond law enforcement and crime prevention. It can be applied to society’s rules, or lack there of. Consider the anarchy that reigns in the doorways of America today.
As a baby boomer, I grew up in a dysfunctional, heterosexual, two parent home. By today’s standards my father suffered from post traumatic shock syndrome and my mother was a major enabler. I would say we lived paycheck to paycheck, but my father changed jobs so often we never knew when a paycheck was coming. If I had grown up to be a criminal, I could have blamed it on my family of origin, written a book and appeared on Dr. Phil.
Yet, I learned to be polite, considerate and thoughtful, at least to a degree. I learned to open a door for a “lady.” I learned to allow my elders to enter ahead of me, unless they ushered me in. Most important, I learned to enter and leave through the right side of the doorway!
I know that sounds silly. It sounds especially silly in today’s world of revolving doors, sliding doors and doors that swing both ways. Still, the next time you have the chance, watch people walking into and out of the local store.
How many do you see barging in ahead of someone else? How many do you see pushing their way in through the “out” door, or out through the “in” door? How many do you see holding the door for someone else, and if they do, how often are they thanked for their courtesy? How many times are you forced to do that little dance in the doorway to go in or out when someone is coming the other way?
Manners, basic civility and respect for fellow human beings are dead in this country. If they are not dead, they are certainly on life support. People today feel it is their right to barge in through any door they please, any way they please and over anyone they please. The concept of being considerate of those around you is almost nonexistent in today’s world. What happened to manners and civility? Why is no one taught to enter on the right, say “thank you” or “you are welcome?”
Certainly families are important places to learn manners. However, changes in society have made it more difficult for families to function as they did in past generations. Today, families are only a small part of the learning environment for most people. People learn from watching others around them. They learn from the way others react to them. They learn from radio, television and the movies. Some may even learn at school, but teaching civility and manners are apparently low priorities in most schools today.
Where did I, and others in my generation, learn manners? Where did we learn that you enter through the right side of double door, and exit from the right side as well? No, I am not contradicting myself! The right side in is opposite of the right side out. As my drill instructor said many times, “Your other right stupid!”
Some of us learned from our parents. Some of us learned from our teachers. However, we learned more quickly from complete strangers. The kind of stranger who gave you “the eye” if you pushed in through the out-door. The kind of stranger who said, “What would your mother say,” when you tried to barge ahead of someone in line.
Losing the concept of going through a doorway on the right may have been one of the “broken windows” in the decline of society. Little acts of incivility or disregard for another tend to desensitize people. Each such act makes the next one easier and more justifiable in some ways.
Society became a little less civil when people started barging through either side of a doorway. Society lost more civility when people stopped holding doors open for each other and stopped thanking someone who did hold a door for them. More was lost when people became afraid to point out another’s rude behavior.
The dance in the doorway did not bring about the end of civility as it was known in times past. It was just one of the small signs of changing values that most people ignored. Like a broken window on an abandoned or vacant building, it was one of the invitations to join the anarchy that reigns in our doorways, in our intersections and in our society in general.
Civility may be a lost concept in most segments of society. It may be one that can never be recovered fully, if at all. However, there are lessons that can be learned from the death of civility. What is the next “broken window” in our society and culture? What is the next small change that might lead to a downward spiral of some sort? What is something in your life that you have stopped doing because it seems old-fashioned or out of step? Maybe you should reconsider it, whatever it is.
© S. E. Jackson – 2012