Let’s play a game. I write down some words, and you guess the year the bunch appeared in the newspaper:
“Greeting-card companies have added ‘Drop dead’ and ‘You’re an [expletive]’ messages to their product lines. Other entrepreneurs deliver bouquets of dead flowers and revenge-o-grams of rotting fish.”
"High school sports leagues have started banning postgame handshakes to avoid fistfights."
“Donald Trump is forever referred to as a ‘stubby-fingered vulgarian.’ ”
Consider, also, this other sampling of warm-and-fuzzy sentiments about society spiraling into the sewer:
“The current decline of civility is unprecedented. Especially in the United States.”
“One reason more people are jerks is because they know they can get away with it. Years ago, we thought someone would stop us or punish us or our conscience would bother us. Now, police are overworked, religion is ignored and students have no fear of teachers; teachers have fear of students.”
“There’s a cynicism about playing by the rules. Virtue isn’t seen as its own reward. It’s seen as a sign of foolishness. Nice guys finish last.”
The answers to this Fun-With-Multiple-Choice exercise may surprise you. Example No. 1 is from 30 years ago (1989). Example No. 2 is scarcely more current, dating to 1995. Yes, incivility is all around us today. But it is a movie we’ve already seen.
What a gas! I laughed, I cried. But most of all, I was grateful to see that the conventional wisdom of our times may be rubbish. That we may be wrong when we think that, in this moment of ubiquitous disgust and tribalism in America, we are drowning in a pit of digital bile unlike anything we have seen before.
Maybe it isn’t all the internet’s fault, people. Maybe humankind is just unkind. There’s comfort in being reminded of that. It’s why there’s religion. And hot yoga.
This revelation of American life (and all the above material) comes from Inquirer archives. It was discovered through an accident of journalistic research. Just before Thanksgiving, I was scrolling through decades of news clips, looking for something entirely unrelated. Amid the blur of words on page after page, two headlines jumped out at me.
"AMERICA THE CYNICAL: HOW LOW CAN WE GO IN THE MEAN DEPARTMENT? "
“LET’S TALK RUDE”
I squinted. What year were these? I knew I had gone back decades, but this? It seemed like one of the many catastrophic online think pieces I’d read about the troubles of our current age. My smartphone-fatigued eyes stared at similarly verbose hand-wringing — but from a generation ago, before Google, Facebook, Twitter, texting, and Snapchat.
Maybe we’re not so doomed, after all.
Maybe this mess that we call modern life in America is as situational as all the others. Maybe it, too, shall pass. The hurling of insults toward family, toward friends, toward our 5-7 Philadelphia Eagles. The holiday gatherings where you hope the guy carving the turkey doesn’t turn the knife on you as talk turns to Trump. The way kids in schools experience the cruelty of bullying by text. The way you hope that those children will come out of it all OK, and realize, as adults, that it was just one of the nasty things that comes and goes with time.
Perspective is one of life’s biggest challenges. You want to be vigilant as societal norms seem to become dangerously distorted. And there’s no arguing that we are in a dangerous time. We have real problems. Racial and ethnic discord; partisan anger and economic inequality. It’s important to make sure, especially in a fragile democratic republic such as ours, that we are safeguarding a culture that binds us together as a nation, not fractures us into angry camps.
But you also need to know your history.
This is one reason journalism is sacred. It produces a record of our lives that can be looked at years later. In the course of any given day, we journalists stumble upon new information while doing little more than our jobs. Perspective forces its way into our minds, then onto our keyboards. With any luck, a reader out there in the universe decides to read what we have written.
The 1995 story about incivility, which I quoted above, alluded to the famous, mortal duel in 1804 between founding father Alexander Hamilton and then-Vice President Aaron Burr. The supporting headline could have easily been written today:
“AS BAD AS THINGS SEEM TO BE, LOOK BACK TO THE DAYS WHEN SWORDS IN PUBLIC WERE DE RIGUEUR.”
Same with the lead sentence. It’s a barb of such unfiltered, digital-age craftsmanship that you can easily imagine some guy in South Philly tweeting it while scarfing down a steak with cherry peppers and Cheez Whiz:
“READ THIS STORY, DIRT BAG!”
It ain’t pretty. Never has been. But with any luck, this too, shall pass.