To be fair, Joe Wilson was never really alone, though his ascension to the highest peak of incivility was well documented. Beyond shouting down and verbally lambasting the President of the United States, the only possibility to eclipse such a moment of indiscretion would be insulting an emissary from an intergalactic species, during a first contact situation.
Subsequent to this, there have been two equally high profile incidents of incivility, which lead me to question the status of the human species as predominant because of our highly-developed cerebral cortex. Now, for sheer power and gall, neither of these incidents compare to Representative Wilson's faux pas, but they do highlight the fact that, at least for the 'American' branch of the human family tree, social civility has gone the way of the dinosaurs:
- Serena William, tennis professional, champion, fashion designer, and media darling, reacted in a most unbecoming manner to a line judge at the U.S. Open, when called for a "foot fault." Her demeanor was less than professional, when she suggested she would a tracheotomy of the judge with her racket (or something to that effect). She has subsequently apologized.
- Kanye West, musician, author, music producer, decided to interrupt the acceptance speech of Taylor Swift during the MTV Video Music Awards (which is odd, since I was unaware MTV played music videos anymore), to lament Beyoncé Knowles not winning that particular award. An apology appeared on his blog after the event.
Apparently, live television has the effect of incapacitating the sensibilities of those susceptible to its effects. Some radiation or magnetism seems to seep into the brains of the unknowing, causing them to blurt out their innermost thoughts. It is the television equivalent of road rage.
Perhaps, in the end, that's what it is: visceral, unfocused, pent up rage. Bottled up in a vessel of human construction, under the right amount of pressure, the vessel cracks and spews forth invective, vitriol, and unmitigated emotion. We cannot know how long it stewed or how much of this foul concoction brewed there, deep in the dark recesses of the brain, before containment could no longer be maintained. We only see the end result: Krakatoa writ on the human scale.
It is easy to pick on these public figures, for they had nowhere to hide, trapped in the baleful glare of the camera eye. With no one or no thing to hide behind, they are now the easy fodder for those who see them as pariahs, or as poor role models, or embarrassing reminders of times past. And yet, who amongst us has not done the same? I mentioned road rage previously, and perhaps these are only the most visible signs that our society has lost its capacity for dealing with the stress of our everyday lives, devolving into a maelstrom of irrational behavior. We all do it, whether it be a full-throated roar or muttering under our breath, in front of associates, or family, or even children.
If we are wont to wonder how our society got here, perhaps we need look no further than our country's past. American society has always been pushing against the strictures and restrictions placed on it by many a legal and/or moral authority; the nation was founded mainly by groups who chafed under the restrictions placed on them by the governments and religious authorities of their original home countries. They came here to establish their own communities, with their own codes, free of the condemnation and scorn they knew at home, only to be forced to endure it again when the Americas were colonized and rules and taxes established by foreign governments. This fomented revolution, a revolution that was stitched together by compromise, because while all agreed that freedom was preferable to tyranny, they also believed that should be allowed to maintain their individual way of life, even under the auspices of a more centralized government of their own creation.
So, while foreign control was replaced by more localized control, there was still the feeling of constriction. The States grappled with the Federal government, claiming their power was inviolate, Constitution or no. This came to a head with the abolitionist movement and The Civil War, when State's rights came into direct conflict with the Constitutional idea that "all men are created equal." Even that war, however, could not quell the feelings of the average American, that somehow others had too much control, too much power over them. This would continue to be an issue, flaring up in the women's suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, McCarthyism, etc. States continued (and do still) to fight the Federal government, keeping the Supreme Court busy, as they tried to define the lines of control.
With each passing year, with every event that transpires, it seems the field widens, the divisions become broader, and civility becomes more watered down. Those who profess peace, compromise, consensus, and integrity, are easy targets for marksmen and for pundits. It is far easier to cling to ones own beliefs, to inveigh against change, to see others as a foe to be defeated, rather than a person with the same rights and privileges as you. It is far easier to throw up barriers to discourse, than to tear down walls of ignorance. It is easier to see the world as solid, unchanging, than it is to realize it is fluid and dynamic.
Perhaps there was never any true civility in this nation, only a grudging respect, tempered by the need to provide and to survive. Maybe, back when the longevity of the United States was not assured, it was easier to put aside differences, rather than show weakness to be exploited by a potential enemy. Given that we are more than two centuries on, maybe the pretense is no longer maintained. Now, the petty squabbles and counter-productive clashes of ideals are able to break out and run, unimpeded, throughout the land, bringing us to a point where we no longer feel bound to the rules of social, civilized society.
In the end, we stand on the brink of watching our peace and tranquility torn asunder, by ego and hubris. If we would see our nation survive another two centuries, we must take these breaches, these lapses of judgment and character, and use them as lessons for future generations. A house divided against itself will not stand -- a nation united by compromise will not fall.