Opinion

America's lost civility

Here's the problem with our 'me first' mentality

An extremely pregnant woman was standing in a crowded New York City subway car, hanging on with one hand as it swayed back and forth, waiting for some decent soul to offer her a seat. No one stood up. When the mom-to-be — The Week's managing editor, Carolyn O'Hara — painted this grim tableau for me the other day, I was appalled but not surprised. It's just another manifestation of what I've come to think of as our country's "eff you" culture. Norms of civility are eroding at a galloping pace, and giving way to an unashamed rudeness — a me-first ethos in which people feel they owe nothing to anyone. You see it in every aspect of life: drivers who speed up as you try to merge onto a highway, blocking you from "getting ahead"; pedestrians who batter you with elbows, bags, or umbrellas and glare rather than apologize; morons who bray loudly or let their children run wild in restaurants and other public places, oblivious to the irritation of people all around them. Eff you if you don't like it.

What's going on? My guess is that several factors are conspiring to make us all more self-centered. Modern workplace culture is brutally Darwinian, with employees knowing they're disposable at any time; in the struggle for economic survival, everyone is your competition. Our personal electronic devices encapsulate us in a bubble of personal preferences — customized music, videos, news, texts, Facebook updates. "The commons" of shared information, culture, and basic values is fading away. My reality trumps yours; in fact, your very existence in my space is an intrusion in my bespoke world. Our politics has become toxic, and laced with fear and resentment; each faction sees the others as existential threats to their way of life who must be silenced, conquered, crushed. Where does this eff-youism lead? Nowhere good. C'mon, people: We're all stuck with each other, and life is a lot easier — and more pleasant — when we grant other folks the right to exist.

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