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“Unwinding the Vicious Spiral”

by Don Webb

Jerry’s editorial, “The Death of Civility,” in issue 126, makes a number of very interesting points about modern culture, starting with the violence that afflicts sports at all levels, from youth to professional. Players and fans have no right to commit assault or assault and battery, especially in sports arenas or on the playing field; and yet it occurs.

Jerry is talking not about individuals or isolated incidents but about a cultural trend. He cites Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Friday, where the “Boss” views incivility as the sign of a sick and moribund society: bad manners are worse than a riot. Jerry concludes: “I think we are in trouble.” Is that alarmism and prudery? Or is Jerry Wright... right?

Context seems to play an enormous role: Jerry refers to Dan Henniger’s article, “From McLuhan to Artest: Street-fightin’ men stomp the quiet virtues.” Henniger points to television as one of the causes. By its very nature, as Marshall Macluhan predicted, the “small screen” promotes exaggerated, abnormal behavior simply to attract the viewers’ attention. Actors feel obliged to overact or even “ham it up” in ways that would be unacceptable in film or on the stage.

Thus the phenomenon snowballs as a consequence of alienation, the anonymity of crowds, mob psychology, and “monkey see, monkey do.” Roughneck sports fans may not even care whether they will be seen on television, but they imitate what they have already seen because the behavior has received at least tacit approval, and they haven’t heard anybody they respect denounce it.

No suprise, then, that the organized hooliganism associated initially with British soccer is a contagion likely to spread by a kind of cultural Gresham’s Law, where bad behavior drives out good in cultures susceptible to it. Does the “take no prisoners” propaganda in what passes for American political discourse differ in kind or only in degree? And is it not of a piece with the cheap thrills that Julie Courchesne decries in popular art?

Jerry rolls out some heavy artillery:

The Dark Age Ahead. Those of you who have read Don Webb’s review of Jane Jacob’s book understand the five pillars of modern society that are in danger. To this let me add a sixth.

And that sixth brings us back to Heinlein’s Friday : it’s the “death of civility.” In fact, Jane Jacobs herself discusses it in chapter 7, “Unwinding Vicious Spirals” (esp. pp. 152-157). She makes no apologies for examining what may seem to be a narrow subject. She points out that societal breakdowns make “succinct stories” seen from a distance, but in close-up view, the details — such as public rowdiness — seem to separate into isolated incidents unless they are understood in their context.

As an urbanist and, as I call her, a social philosopher, Jacobs takes a long view. She sees North America as having taken a cultural wrong turn after about 1916. Ever since that time, urban zoning laws have been predicated on the assumption that three things are bad: high ground coverage, high density, and mingled commercial and residential properties. All to no avail: land-use zoning has not achieved its purpose of overcoming problems of public order and health; it has only promoted urban sprawl.

Jane Jacobs’ point is that zoning looks at problems upside down. Cities would have thrived not by dictating land use but by establishing performance codes instead: e.g. the regulation of noise, odors, vehicular traffic, signs and illumination, outscale buildings and the destruction of parkland. The conclusion seems clear to me: performance codes would have enabled city dwellers to form communities; land-use zoning imposes a uniformity that promotes isolation.

Trying to control bad behavior or crimes ... obliquely by land use rules doesn’t work and banishes much that is constructive. ... Too much of the same thing, unalleviated by other uses — whether residences, bars and clubs, schools, or catchall cultural centers — doesn’t work constructively. In cities, differing uses in close proximity tame one another. Even concentrated genteel concert and theater centers from which hordes of people emerge simultaneously, all wanting to nab taxis or buy a drink, breed pushiness and other bad manners (p. 156).

Are “pushiness and other bad manners” symptomatic of a lack of community? Are people pushy and ill-mannered toward their neighbors? Or do they sense only dimly that they have any neighbors and live without even knowing it in a culture of isolation and, therefore, fear of others? Take it further: the uniformity of crowds affords a disguise; it allows the unknowingly alienated and fearful to act, if only for a moment, as social terrorists.

How then can society “unwind the vicious spiral” that is the “death of civility”? I don’t see how the size of crowds can be reduced at sports events; at best they can be dispersed and controlled at the exits. Nor will it help matters to erect barriers between them and the players. If fans and audiences are put in de facto prisons before they’ve done anything, why not do something to deserve it?

Since freedom is the ability to do all that the laws permit, society has to define what it won’t permit. And, indeed, we already have performance codes: no one has the right to do in a crowd what they do not have the right to do alone or with one other person on a sidewalk. It’s a matter of enforcement.

Enforcement is difficult, but it’s the only way to make sure bad behavior has consequences. In Beyond This Horizon, Heinlein depicts a paradoxical society, one that is planned and computerized not only economically but biologically; and yet it’s also an anarchy. Etiquette is maintained by men, most of whom carry an “enforcer,” namely a sidearm: be polite or be ready to duel it out on the spot. Heinlein appears to take his premise seriously, and yet he’s squeamish about it. He says nothing about organized violence: gangsters who ambush passers-by or bullies who prey on those who look slow on the draw. And he gives little, if any, thought to innocent bystanders who might be felled by a misaimed ray gun or ricocheting bullets.

No, society must have performance codes and enforce them systematically; they can’t be left to anarchy. Otherwise, society will be defined by its lowest common denominators, including debased, cartoonish models of behavior, the politics of fear, and the emptiness of alienation in both cities and — as Kevin Ahearn describes vividly in issue 125 — in art, as well.

Copyright © 2004 by Don Webb for Bewildering Stories

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