An excursion to the post office this morning generated angry shouts and fingered gestures from the driver in back of me when I failed to accelerate through a yellow light but instead stopped just as it turned red. His car actually shook from his interior motions and pounding of his dashboard. It certainly wasn’t my intent to enrage anyone. It was my intent to avoid either an accident or a ticket. However, I must admit to a certain degree of satisfaction that the other driver’s rage apparently was causing him so much distress. Uncivil of me.
Scarcely a day goes by without an article on the “incivility crisis” in America. They turn up both in left and right wing publications though naturally each tends to list the misdeeds of the other ideological group as examples. It goes far beyond politics though. According to a Weber Shandwick poll, 65% of Americans think incivility is a “major problem” that has worsened in the past decade, whether driving, shopping, working, or, of course, posting online. That doesn’t prevent 59% from admitting in a KRC Research survey to being uncivil themselves.
I’ve breathed the atmospheres of enough decades to have some basis for comparison, and it is my general sense that there really has been a trend toward more casual rudeness, but that the trend has been not nearly so significant as the change in our experience of it, particularly online. Without social media, we previously didn’t have the opportunity to experience as much casual cruelty from so many different people in so short a time. Often it is dressed up as candor. Tennessee Williams: “All cruel people describe themselves as paragons of frankness.” For anyone in the public eye, abuse arrives in a cascade. Sarah Jessica Parker recently said she does not read anything posted online about her because of “random cruelty.” Let’s be clear that rudeness is cruelty. It may not be physical abuse, but it generates pain nonetheless either by intent or by carelessness, usually the former.
In the wild, aggression is necessary for survival. We didn’t rid our instinct for it by moving from the wild to the suburbs. Aggression directed outward easily crosses the line into sadism and directed inward crosses into masochism. According to Freud both arise out of the death instinct. Nietzsche tied aggression to the Will to Power. Envy is particularly effective at bringing out the worst in us. All social animals make social comparisons and jockey for relative position; if we can’t raise ourselves up we are tempted to take others down. Researcher Hidehiko Takahashi found by means of fMRI scans that envy activates the same portions of the anterior cortex that are triggered by physical pain; conversely the pleasure centers light up when the envied folk face trouble. We are prewired for schadenfreude. Gore Vidal: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”
To say it is normal to have such feelings, however, is not to say we need act in accordance with them. In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud argued that restraining our destructiveness was necessarily a cause of individual unhappiness but was the price of civilization. We don’t have to look far to see what happens when people fail to make that trade-off. Freud himself wasn’t too confident about the long-term prospects: “The fateful question of the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent the cultural process developed in it will succeed in mastering the derangements of communal life caused by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.” He had hopes for the more constructive set of instincts associated with Eros. They do sound like more fun. To what extent common incivility and petty cruelty – as opposed to outright criminality – thwarts them is open to debate, but they probably don’t help.
I feel the temptation, though, to go for another drive. This time I think I’ll stop for two red lights.
Placebo: Every You, Every Me opening track to Cruel Intentions (1999)