I blame elites for our uncivil society (National Post, January 7, 2004)

A reader -- M_____ -- wrote to express his vexation over a recent column. No problem; it's a free(ish) country.

What distinguished this particular e-mail was its opening line: "Jesus, Barbara, loosen the f... up" (without elision). This gratuitous profanity to a stranger -- and, yes, a woman -- crossed a line. I replied that if he wanted to be taken seriously, M_____ would have to adopt a more civil tone.

M______ responded: "What you call civility is over-rated ... It's the etiquette equivalent of starched collar and spats. Insolence can be the sincerest expression of concerned engagement."

Is civility over-rated? Further dialogue revealed M_____ to be a PhD candidate and teacher. Years ago, no High Culturist would ever have dreamed of appropriating aggressive Low Culture "attitude" as a strategy for opening a dialogue with a stranger. Today I am rebuked as a "Miss Grundy" for calling a social transgression by name.

Language usage is the canary in the mine of social change. What can or cannot be said without censure in normal conversation points to standards of decency in society at large. In 1960 four letter words were unknown in the public forum. That era's educated social elites rarely even swore in private, apart from the odd "damn" or "hell," let alone in public life or the media.

Today it is the reverse. Foul language is entrenched and considered "cool": in the street, in the arts, (especially) in sports, and in the media. What we are witnessing now, according to social historian Charles Murray, is a "surrender to a sense of promiscuity." Vulgarized language, manners and art first declare themselves in the bottom tiers of society, then "spread ... to the ranks of the dominant minority, which ... succumbs to the sickness of 'proletarianization.' "

Language is only one amongst several indicators of the decline in civility. Dress codes and behaviour in public spaces also reflect the collapse of High into Low culture. Recently my synagogue was driven to issue guidelines informing the membership, amongst other caveats, that it was inappropriate for children to attend Sabbath services in jeans, and that parents would be held responsible for the escalating abuse of synagogue property by their children. That an elite community like ours -- super-educated, middle to upper middle class, mostly professionals, academics and entrepreneurs -- should require formal chastisement for breaches of such minimal standards of social decency, unthinkable in previous generations, is disheartening, to say the least.

The coarsening of behaviour and discourse, Murray says, reflects "a collapse in the codes of the elites," which in turn creates a vacuum into which "thug codes" can enter. Hip-hop is one expression of that code. Eminem's and 50 Cent's subversive rants are disgusting to "nice" people -- that's us, for "gangstas" do not read the Comment page -- but even collectively we seem to lack the confidence necessary to mount an effective counterweight to them and their fellow travellers.

Quite the opposite: The moral relativists tell us we must tolerate and never judge the underclass "lifestyle," which often involves real, not just "aesthetic" violence. So instead of criticizing and holding responsible those who spew hate-drenched pathology that passes for artistic expression, elites direct all of their animosity toward other "nice" people who aren't up to liberal snuff. Thus we now have the weird situation in which hyper-alert ideologues create convoluted speech codes to root out racist and sexist language in other sensitized elites, then uncritically bob and sway to obscenity-riddled rap lyrics extolling the delights of raping women and killing (white) policemen.

Capitulation to underclass codes can be seen in all kinds of behaviours that used to distinguish decent people from trash. Girls today, children still, dress (and act) like hookers with parental approval or indifference. What were once universally understood signs of social degeneracy we now accept with a helpless shrug.

One can understand adolescents' fascination with thug code. But adult intellectuals? Ironically the playful ideological "homage" intellectuals pay to Low Culture effectively mocks underclass ignorance. Today's elites are therefore complicit in discouraging the cultural advance of these angry illiterates. Why improve if society's most educated applaud your militant philistinism?

The erosion in standards of civility is not a superficial phenomenon. Our attitude to decorum reflects our level of respect for society's defining values. Resistance to the vulgarization of public life is gathering. The values-guided amongst us never abandoned those traditional norms of civility that make for a healthy society. And the attraction to health over sickness accounts in part for the return of conservatism to North American life.

Good fences do make better neighbours of strangers. Once intimacy is established, we can agree on the number and placement of gates and open or close them according to our comfort level. That fence, civility, is not over-rated. It has simply, sadly, collapsed, due to gross negligence.


© National Post 2004