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The Dissolution of Civility

So . . . it’s a brave new world — again.  Back in the 60s, the term “generation gap” was introduced to describe the cultural disconnect between parents of the WWII generation and their children.  And the divide was palpable given the contrast between a responsible population raised on depression-era, community-oriented values, and their generally self-indulgent, sex, drugs & rock ‘n roll Boomer progeny.  Although there was a clear hierarchical respect for one’s elders, on the subject of world view, parental thoughts were universally marginalized, if not completely dismissed.

Hello new millennium.  The Boomers are now the parents.  Beneficiaries of the greatest wealth-accumulation era of all time, they have spawned a couple of generations of hyper-indulged offspring.  Every kid’s special.  Everyone gets a trophy for playing.  iPhones, X-boxes, karate, semesters abroad, cars, exotic travel, Mark Jacobs bags and boob jobs.  And every one of them is headed for Wall Street, preferably by way of Harvard.

Interestingly, the chasm between Boomer parents and their kids didn’t seem to be very wide until recently.  Both generations essentially listen to similar music, watch the same TV shows, play video games and participate in similar sports.  Out-of-the-nest daughters call or text their mothers 50 times a day (I believe I only spoke with my mother once a week after I graduated from high school).  The parental line has now been skewed toward the category of “friends.”  Nice . . . at least on the surface.  But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find a significant divide.

A tectonic cultural shift has emerged that has amplified and transferred the self-absorption of the “me generation” to the progenitor “bubble” generations, ultimately completing the feedback loop to the makers.  And with that shift has come a pervasive rudeness and emotional indifference that is not only ubiquitous in its delivery, but considered socially acceptable in its reception.  Give and ye shall receive.

Technology is probably the greatest catalyst of this anti-social transformation, which is most concentrated in the bubble generations.  The obvious symptoms include screening calls, not responding to messages, talking on cell phones when you should be paying attention to someone or something else, not looking at the person you’re speaking with, Blackberry obsession, indiscriminately using “reply to all”, not thanking someone for holding the door open (or anything else for that matter), a general lack of empathy and compassion, avoiding the “not interested” conversation with the opposite sex or a job applicant, and on and on.  Perhaps the most emblematic sign of this non-civil movement is texting.  By definition, it is telling someone that they are not worthy of the time investment required for a conversation or for spelling words out in their entirety (although it’s use has mercifully cut down on the number of obnoxiously loud cell phone conversations in restaurants and on commuter trains).  Of course, there are many wonderful dividends that technology has given us.  And yes, the pace of societal advancement has been absolutely breathtaking.  But guess what, Neo . . . no one is really HERE.  They’re all somewhere else.  Their attention is directed everywhere except toward the folks that surround them.

Well, how about the social networks, you say?  After all, they are “social” aren’t they?  Yes, they are.  On the most superficial of levels.  I like to think of Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, etc. as “look at me” platforms.  They’re not so much about staying connected as they are about giving ordinary folks a microphone and feeding their A.D.D.  It’s the high school popularity syndrome where we all want to be the center of attention.  Look how many “friends” I have!  But interacting through the veil of technology allows us to hide — to “dis” people without the discomfort of direct confrontation.  That way, in our minds, we can all remain nice guys.  Of course we know that’s a fallacy, but we’re just not willing to admit it to ourselves.

O.K. — back to the real face-to-face world.  How do you feel about the attitude you get from the cashier at the deli or the comatose workers at the post office or the guy that speeds-up to block your lane change?  And how about the staff at the doctor’s office who, without apology, make you wait 2 hours to be seen or put your call on hold until your next birthday.  Is all of this now considered acceptable behavior?  Moreover, does anyone even notice it anymore?  If not, I think we should.  Perhaps that would fuel a civility revolution.

So next time you voicemail or text your daughter/friend and don’t hear back for 24 hours, pay attention to where you lie on her priority list.  She got the message and is passively dissing you.  But the good news is, she’s a nice guy.


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