Immanuel Kant

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Today I was in a discount store in a small town in North Carolina. I bought two videos, and when I went to the counter to pay for them, the clerk constantly looked down, looked as if she were angry with the world. Her rudeness made me nervous, so I quickly walked away–and forgot my receipt. The clerk held it out, said in a hateful voice, “Here!” I did not respond in kind but left as quickly as I could.

When I was a child, incidents like this were rare. My parents would take me to Sears in downtown Nashville on Lafayette Street, and most of the clerks were friendly–many had worked there for years and recognized regular customers. Around 1970 the situation started to change. Younger clerks were hired, and many of them had an “attitude.” They were angry, did not want to help the customers, and were sometimes openly hateful. Over the years, I witnessed rude behavior by clerks and others in positions in which employees dealt with the public. In addition, people walking on the street would walk side by side and force a person walking the other way to avoid them by walking in the grass–or worse, in the mud. I knew rude behavior was common in large northeastern cities, where people were hoarded together like rats in a cage, but to see that behavior spreading to the South was disturbing.

Rudeness, the lack of common courtesy, is a major problem in America. The veneer of civilization is very thin, as William Golding recognized. Politeness is not only a way of showing respect to fellow human beings, it is also a way of keeping social interactions among strangers working smoothly. Since the social revolution of the 1960s, the attitude of “Me! Me! Me!” has been adopted by far too many people. They only think of themselves and their own wants (“wants,” not “needs”–they confuse the two). If they wish to hog the sidewalk and ignore the person on the other side, they simply do not care. They are either oblivious to others or worse, disdainful of others.

What can be done to stop rudeness? First, to the best of one’s ability, one should not respond in kind. Second, be careful about direct confrontation; in the present day it is impossible to know whether a stranger is willing to pursue violence when confronted. But if one is dealing with an obnoxious clerk or other employee in a business transaction, contacting the employee’s supervisor might be a good idea.

Parents should teach their children basic manners and the notion that they should respect other people. I remember one day when I was jogging in Athens, Georgia, listening to a tape, a group of children were playing. One child yelled out, “Hey, he’s got headphones in his ear like a girl!” If I had ever spoken to an adult that way, I would have severely regretted that choice. Far too many of today’s parents find such behavior “cute.” It will be not be as “cute” when the child is an adult. If a child is not taught to respect others by his parents, it is unlikely that the child will learn respect from his peer group.

Teachers should demand respect at schools, and the principles should back them up. If a parent threatens to sue, the school should not give in to the parent. A sleazy lawyer might take the case and file a suit, but the chances of the school losing would be slim–and the money spent on attorney’s fees would be worth sending a message to sorry parents that their child’s bad behavior will not be tolerated. And I’m old-fashioned enough to think that children should be taught to say “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am.” I know some politically correct individuals are opposed to saying those words, but I have no idea way. As I have pointed out before, academia is an odd place. The philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), when he was old and bedridden, forced himself to stand and shake the hand of a visitor. When others around him told him he was too weak, Kant replied, “Far be it from me to show a lack of respect to a fellow rational being.” Would that all the American people had the same attitude.

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