Last week, nearly the same big-big-picture question was posed at two different times by two really different people: my mother and my good friend Scott. Going through it twice got me thinking about it further, as did the coincidince of the topic recurring. Here’s the question:
What precipitated the decline of decency and personal standards in the United States?
While I realize there’s no pinpointing the answer—because there are many answers and many viewpoints that are likely conflicting yet right—I still feel compelled to ask. First, what I don’t mean:
- People dressing nice.
- People using proper manners or language.
- Acting nice.
What I do mean by “decency” is behavior that conforms to accepted standards of morality or respectability. Right away, the word “accepted” is highly conspicuous because, as we all know, what is accepted changes over time. But we’ll get to that in a few minutes.
To put a pushpin in the American timeline of recent understanding—let’s just say the fifties. Depending on who you were and what gender, race, socio-economic status, and place you were born… things may have been dramatically better or worse for you, but the options for “accepted standards of morality or respectability” were inarguably more cut and dry. I mean, I guess. That’s how it seems in retrospect anyhow. Now if you were on a side of life that was in conflict with the norm, then you had a rougher road ahead of you—certainly—but looking back, it appears as though the choices for behavior were simpler: be decent to your family and your community and you’d be respected. I don’t know if that’s fair or a gross generalization, but that’s how it seems.
Cut to now. Things are much more complicated and there are many, many, many ways to live that are “accepted” even while they may not conform to any standard. For oppressed or marginalized populations and individuals, things are better now generally. Right? Abuses and injustice are out in the open and—although not eradicated—we are free to call them out, to escape them, and to try to right them. And that’s wonderful.
But what about decency? How are we doing in that department? How do we treat one another in day to day exchanges? It seems to me—someone born in the seventies that came of age in the nineties—that as a whole, we are less decent to one another now than we were then. Hell, I have noticed a decline in civility even from the eighties and nineties. Now, I do recognize that I am getting older and I have a kid—and that colors how I see these things—but not entirely. Here are some anecdotal examples of change I have noticed in the last 25 years:
- People wave less, even on country roads.
- Clerks don’t apologize for bad service or faulty products.
- Whereas people used to argue or agree to disagree, they now shut each other out.
- The norm seems to be that everyone has an assumed right to disregard others’ rights or needs.
- There’s a prevailing attitude of “fuck you/them” about different outlooks.
In each discussion with my mom and with Scott, I tried to trace a path back to what was behind the thing that’s behind what we were talking about. In both conversations, I came back to unchecked corporate greed and our collective willingness to allow it for short-term gain. My mind went to our own increasing willingness to eat, watch, hear, work with, and vote for worthless crap—and that we shouldn’t be surprised when that’s all that’s available. This goes for media and technology as well. To me, this added up to the price of apathy.
There’s something called “social norming” which simply means that there are norms defining appropriate behavior for every social group. For example, students, neighbors and patients in a hospital are all aware of the norms governing behavior. And as the individual moves from one group to another, their behavior changes accordingly. In sociology and related fields, they talk about “social norming” in the sense that people act how they think they are supposed to act because they percieve that this is just what’s being done. But, social norming can also be used to flood the group consiousness with appropriate or healthy behavior so people understand the other option. So I wonder if we’ve just gobbled up the cheap thrills and shoddy products being fed to us with increasing profit margins and decreasing shelf-lives because that’s what we think everyone is doing now… and that’s what we’re reaping now: impatience and a prevailing sense of entitlement.
Enter: my wife. Ever the blunt pragmatist, she said “no… people have always been selfish assholes and now we can just see it more because of the Internet and social media.” She has a point worth considering. Are people getting less compassionate and less thoughtful? Or do the dummies just make for better clickbait stories?
I think I know the answer.
Back to those conversations, my friend Scott recounted a story of overhearing two women on an airplane talk about one’s experience working at a daycare. One of the moms comes in daily on the phone, points to her kid, and leaves without ever talking to the caregiver or to her own. You have to ask yourself: did the mom think to herself when she was pregnant “when this little miracle comes into my life, I am going to ignore it and teach it that phones are more important than people”? Alternately, did Steve Jobs and Jony Ive (chief architects of the Apple’s iPhone) scheme to make people disreguard one another in a diabolical plot? I don’t think either is true.
Rather, as the technology became available and was weilded in this way—and ready to be adoped by the marketplace at a reasonable price to make its use widespread—then the capability to be taken away from the moment and ourselves and each other was thrust upon us unwittingly. And like a frog in boiling water, we didn’t jump out. Nor did we speak up when we saw it.
Certainly, while television and then cable played a role in broadening our understanding of social norms, it seems that the Internet and now smartphones have accelerated what’s happening with society. The hardware, the software, the advertising, the services are all big money-makers for corporations. And we’re all too happy to give it to them, it seems.
So what is the answer to the question “What precipitated the decline of decency and personal standards in the United States?” In a sense, it was corporate greed that hastened our lust for useful things and for crap. And it was our own willingness to just hand ourselves over to it. Because in our nature is the fundamental capacity for selfishness and disregard. When something like technology comes along to make it simpler to tweet than to talk, to video an assault than to intervene, to point at our child rather than to embrace them—if we are willing—then we’re inclined to let it override our responsibility to one another.
Are we less decent than we were? I think we are. I think in many respects our phones and the apps on them have reverted us to three year olds: seeing what we can get away with. Is it reversable? I believe so, to the extent we are willing to change and speak up… requiring something better of ourselves and one another.
Otherwise, if we don’t change where we’re headed, we are going to end up there.