The Loss Of Words: Incivility Rising

A Yale lab assistant is impulsively strangled, allegedly by a co-worker. A young man leaving work near the main New York City post office accidentally bumps into a passerby and is stabbed to death. A congressman shouts from the floor, insulting us all. Kanye West steals a microphone at the MTV Video Music Awards. What's up?

As a culture, we are losing the ability to speak, to reason, to talk things out. We are losing "words." TV, email and eBusiness have given us a lot, but they engender a context that bleeds us of the normal interplay and untidy elegance of language. Too many conversations are routinely foreshortened as a result of our mediated, digitized world. And without words and their rightful context, all that remains is action. Extreme action. Think reality TV. Think talk radio. Think Capitol Hill. Not to mention what happens on our own street corners and in our dining rooms.

As an anthropologist who traded his backpack and quinine for a Hartmann three-suiter and Dramamine, I travel the country speaking to the "folk" in an effort to uncover the mind and mood of the American people. I hear a lot of talk that goes something like:



"Technology hasn't helped us. Technology has hurt us. Information technology doesn't entice people to be critical thinkers, to be insightful thinkers that can analyze and question. Many kids aren't even spoken to by parents, who are either absent or 'too busy.' And everybody in the family eats a different meal in a different room, while doing their different thing. We're not conversing. So we're missing social skills, communication skills. Many of us do not know how to talk to people about what we want and need to say. As a result, we are all less safe."

In today's economic context, when doing focus groups with young or old -- and particularly with 30-something males -- I hear a common story of a throttled anger and a tacit expectation of loss seething beneath the top-of-mind chatter. Theirs is mainly a defensive attitude toward the world. A typical refrain is: "There's not a lot of positive coming in these days. And no one and nothing is out there to help me. It's everyone for themselves. You've got to grab for what you want, and the hell with everything else."

We live in a time when it is difficult to rely on the societal culture to gird the making of meaning. A common couplet ending to the current narrative is: "My parents knew their future. I don't even know my present."

For more than four decades, the fragile bonds of American society were held together by the overarching mythology of the Cold War and the global contest with communism. Although challenged by the civil rights revolution of the '60s and frayed by the Vietnam War and Watergate, the social fabric of the United States was supported by external threat and domestic prosperity.

With the disappearance of America's Mr. Hyde and the apparent decline of trust in our market democracy, the mythological underpinnings of American society have eroded. Heroes and villains alike have lost stature, motivation and staying power. They reflect a society beset by seemingly random success, normalcy, failure and violence. They thrive in a world where large events play out on small screens and small events loom ever larger.

A 16-year-old girl from Los Angeles made a big observation: "TV allows us to see things quickly, and computers allow us to do things quickly. So 'quick' feels like success and that feeds upon itself. The quick solution becomes a quest by itself." Result: A culture of entitlement, the expectation of instant gratification.

We see so much nowadays and much of what we see seems incoherent. The Czech writer Milan Kundera, in his novel, Immortality, alerts us to a world in which it is impossible to make distinctions regarding what is important and what is not. In that context, he says, we have but one choice: to make the world the object of our game; to turn it into a toy. Life then becomes a plaything in which people are objects, too -- objects that can be tossed aside or put down.

Another Czech writer, Vaclav Havel, has oriented us to the fact that what the world currently needs is more understanding, not explanation. Understanding takes focus, self-control, resilience, optimism and creativity. It also takes words.

8 comments about "The Loss Of Words: Incivility Rising ".
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  1. Bruce Kaechele from Fathom, October 9, 2009 at 10:30 a.m.

    This is one of the most important posts I have read - here or anywhere. As a father I see this phenomenon acted out daily.

    The distinction between understanding and explanation is huge. And how insightful of the 16 year old from LA - "Quick feels like success." As crazy as this may sound, I believe this can be traced back to the introduction of fax machines and FedEx. The value of overnight and instantaneous replaced the value of thoughtful consideration.

    Thank you for this post, Bob.

    How ironic to respond to this post with this spur of the moment comment.

  2. GR Hansen, October 9, 2009 at 11:15 a.m.

    Mr. Deutsch is right. I will do my best to spread this essay to friends in my community. I hope others can do the same. What it really needs, of course, is "translation" to an audience that can spread it to those he references in the first paragraph.

    We need all to understand there is value in understanding. And that is earned through thoughtful conversation - even if that takes time.

  3. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc., October 9, 2009 at 11:32 a.m.

    Of grammar, logic and rhetoric, how about more logic and less rhetoric? I am sick to death of hearing the word "failed" used as an adjective. I know it's not incorrect. It just assaults my ears and my mind.

  4. Mike Anderson from CSS, October 9, 2009 at 11:37 a.m.

    Thanks for this intelligent commentary, Mr. Deutsch. I, too, will link to this piece and share it with friends and colleagues.

    As a late-stage boomer, I recall the broad coverage given to "the generation gap" in the sixties and seventies. While many see a similar chasm between "Millennials" and the rest of us, I think the issue could more accurately be described as a technology gap or communication gap.

  5. Amy Fanter from Odds On Promotions, October 9, 2009 at 12:02 p.m.

    Two words: Faith and Parenting.

  6. Mickey Lonchar from Quisenberry, October 9, 2009 at 12:43 p.m.

    Bob, as an old-school copywriter, I couldn't agree with you more. I think you hit the nail on the head when you referred to the "instant gratification" of current media and how it influences behavior.

    The Internet, in particular, has supplied another dynamic that seems to more and more be contributing to the decay of of national discourse: lack of accountabilty. Online, we are for the most part anonymous. We aren't "real people," we are email addresses, Twitter feeds and avatars. Because of this cloak of anonymity, we often feel safe to say the most outrageous things online, and never be held accountable. It's a fairly short path from commenting on a right-wing blog that President Obama is a Nazi to carrying a poster of the President with a Hitler moustache at a town hall meeting. And if this is tolerated, well, then pretty much any form of self-expression is given the green light.

    As one example, conservatives have gone from the intellectual analysis of Buckley to the rantings of Beck.

    For the most part, the media itself has been neutral or complacent to this behavior. For that to change, all of us need to commit ourselves to a higher level of discourse.

    http://www.quisenblog.net www.twitter.com/mickeylonchar

  7. Amy Fanter from Odds On Promotions, October 9, 2009 at 1:20 p.m.

    The media has been anything but NEUTRAL. I find it fascinating that the only time "Incivility" is called out is when Conservatives are fighting back. As in, it's okay when Code Pink, SEIU, and Acorn act out, but heaven help us when folks throw on a tri-cornered hat and grab a Gasden flag.

  8. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 12, 2009 at 12:24 p.m.

    So very true that we are losing our humanity and balance. On the right - see Inquisition; see radical anything to restrict everything - a total loss of all self moving into a totalitarian society. The concept of gods is to increase the power of the powerful. Go too far to the left and chaos can erupt from lack of laws and lawful behavior. Nothing is free. Freedom is not free. Excessive greed and immediate gratification creates another diety worshipped from the top of the ivory towers of power to the lowly idiots who were too lazy (to read themselves or receive help in the most information available time since the big bang) and cheap to make sure an attorney went over with a fine tooth comb anything and everything they signed away. And there are rare shout outs about the over population and the waste it creates to destroy ourselves. Bob, I hope you continue writing and influencing. The more you do, the longer we have to survive. Thank you for writing in sentences.

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