Our Uncivil Society and Internet Abuse: Time to End Anonymous Postings?

Ronald W. Pies, MD


July 30, 2012

Our Uncivil Society and Internet Abuse: Introduction

I first read Saul Bellow's masterpiece, Mr. Sammler's Planet, back in my college days in the 1970s, but I recently began thumbing through my dog-eared copy again. I can only guess at what unconscious motive was working in me, but once I began reading, I became convinced that Mr. Sammler's description of our planet, circa 1969, was remarkably prescient:

All this confused sex-excrement-militancy, explosiveness, abusiveness, tooth-showing, Barbary ape howling. Or like the spider monkeys in the trees, as Sammler once had read, defecating into their hands, and shrieking, pelting the explorers below...

I'm referring to the appalling incivility that seems endemic in our culture these days. Witness the recent bullying and abuse of a 68-year-old bus monitor, Karen Klein, at the hands of a bunch of seventh graders. Or consider the vilification and threats of violence directed at infectious disease expert Dr. Paul Offit following his debunking of the supposed vaccination-autism link. With regard to the anonymous, venomous bilge that clogs the Internet these days, as my New York relatives would say, fuhgeddaboudit!

Yes, I know: Harassment and rudeness have always been with us. And yes, I also know psychologist Steven Pinker's argument that modern times are actually less violent than, say, the Dark Ages. Perhaps. But as a child of the '50s and '60s, I can't deny what my own senses and sensibilities tell me: The world has grown crasser, crueler, and ruder since I was a boy. (Our school bus driver, a gruff but decent older man named Lester, commanded instant respect and would have dealt with abusive taunts by stopping the bus and glowering down at his abusers. But then, the worst outburst among my bus-riding cohorts consisted of singing "Tell Laura I Love Her," loudly and off-key.) I'm far from alone in perceiving that rudeness has flourished apace in recent years. In a blog (June 15, 2012) titled "Dearth of Civility in the Public Square," commentator Gwen Ifill described an online survey by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate. Sixty-three percent of the 1000 people surveyed said America has a civility problem, and 72% believe things have gotten worse in the past few years.

Why the Incivility?

What has spawned this general decline in courtesy and its more uncouth brother, the rise of incivility?I suspect there are numerous causes, including the failure of many parents to set a good example for their children. (As the Talmud shrewdly observes, "The child's talk in the marketplace is either of his father or his mother."). But even the most diligent parents can't control what their children are exposed to outside the home. Furthermore, there are forces at work in our society that seem to have increased narcissistic traits in young people -- and where narcissism leads, discourtesy often follows.

In their book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Jean M. Twenge, PhD, and W. Keith Campbell, PhD, point to "the relentless rise of narcissism in our culture." These authors identify several social trends that have contributed to this problem, including what they term "the movement toward self-esteem" that began in the late 1960s and the movement away from "community-oriented thinking" that began in the 1970s. They also point to "...the new parenting culture that has fueled the narcissism epidemic." In effect, the authors argue that there has been a shift away from limit-setting toward letting the child get whatever he or she wants. Maybe so -- but right or wrong, Twenge and Campbell have identified what I see as a growing trend.