The Uses of Civility

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The other day, in the way that one does, I was looking at the July 1967 issue of Playboy. Of course, I was only interested in the articles, which was fortunate, because there was pretty much nothing but articles in the whole magazine. The scarce glamour shots—most of them as chaste as a church tea party—revealed a total of 19 nipples, of which just three, to my inexpert eye, were erect enough to hold a sunburst ornament safely in place.

My, how we've changed. The famous halftime show at the Super Bowl didn't just flash Janet Jackson's breast at a prime-time audience. It also featured a crotch-grabbing rap star and a dance routine that would have got its participants arrested not long ago. Then there were the commercials, whose content included a flatulent horse, a fight between grandparents, and enough spots for impotence medications to raise the Titanic. (The raciest ad I found in my old copy of Playboy was for satin bed sheets and pillowcases, "as used in the Imperial and Bridal Suites of the Conrad Hilton.") And lest you think there's something special about football that encourages vulgarity, USA Today last week had a front-page story on the troubles that colleges are having with cursing at basketball games. University of Maryland coach Gary Williams has been forced to appeal for more decorous behavior from fans.

Good luck, coach. We live in a time and a culture in which vulgarity is so ubiquitous that the word has ceased to carry any hint of opprobrium, and where the concept of civility seems as dated as Ciceronian oratory. Cultural historian Jacques Barzun wrote recently that a 300-year-old "code of civilized manners" came to an end "about halfway into the 20th century." I'd argue that Barzun's dating is off by a couple of decades—otherwise my yellowed copy of a 1967 Playboy would be a lot smuttier than it is—but it's hard to disagree with his broad conclusion.

We've lost something with the decline of social restraint. Civility is essential to social cohesion. When everyone agrees, in an implicit social contract, that they should behave in a certain way—avoid particular words, offer specific courtesies—the realms of the private and the public are yoked together. When you are polite not just to your friends and family, but to everyone with whom you come into contact, a network of trust is established in a society. Trust is the bedrock upon which social and economic exchange is built. Where trust is absent, suspicion rules; you deal only with those you know firsthand, which atomizes society and diminishes the range of human experience.

Sadly, however, civility is a virtue with vices. An established code of behavior to which all are expected to adhere doesn't come out of the clear blue sky. It depends on a sense of social hierarchy that dignifies a particular group or institution—the church, the nobility, whatever—with a degree of authority. Civility is the first cousin to order, deference, conformity. But sometime in the past 40 years, Western society decided that deferential, ordered and conformist societies cramped creativity and personal expression. We shudder at the 1950s, when men and women knew their place, when businessmen wore gray flannel suits, when white Anglo-Saxon Protestants dominated the membership of the power élite as if by right. Nowadays, we champion personal growth. We try to "keep it real." We celebrate diversity. We laugh at the narrow ties and clipped hair of postwar IBM and Ford Motor Co. whiz kids, and lionize instead the untidy entrepreneurialism of high-tech geeks like the young Bill Gates. We disdain order, and we cherish mess. Implicitly, we accept that the incivility and vulgarity which typify messy societies are a worthwhile trade-off for the liberation that such societies allow.

That's why the key moment in the Super Bowl telecast wasn't Janet Jackson's boob boo-boo. It was a commercial for Pepsi-Cola called Crossroads. In the spot it was 1953, and a young Jimi Hendrix was trying to choose between Coke and Pepsi—and, simultaneously, between an accordion and a guitar. You know which drink he picked, and you know which instrument he picked up. If you've got modern blood in your veins—and if, like me, you can remember as if it were yesterday the first time you heard the thrilling six notes that start Hey Joe —you're glad that Hendrix did what he did. But Lawrence Welk had his virtues too, and so did a Playboy you bought for the articles.