“When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency.”—Samuel Johnson
Recent years have seen the complete removal of filters on public discourse. Expletives grace the covers of best-selling volumes. Prominent celebrities — presumably not deprived of some semblance of education — regularly indulge in trashy rants with little or no repercussion.
What is worse than coarse humor or a limited vocabulary is the viciousness of petulant outbursts in print and electronic media. Name calling takes the place of substantive criticism. But along with the cultural shift in sports and entertainment, public expression even among the intelligentsia frequently wallows in tedious brutality. There was a time when political humor was funny and a joke could elicit bi-partisan laughter; now it is merely a stream of outrage and abuse.
It has of course long been fashionable to insist on candor while denouncing the supposed hypocrisy of good manners. No doubt there are times when, as Samuel Johnson admitted, “Courtesy and good humour are often found [in people] with little real worth.” But a decline in etiquette is not likely to improve matters. Elsewhere the English moralist describes propriety as a “fictitious benevolence,” while the lack of it “never fails to produce something disagreeable.” If we are forced to behave nicely even when we don’t want to, we are at less disposed to act badly when we shouldn’t.
Johnson also wrote, “Where there is yet shame, there may in time be virtue.” At the present time, however, shame is not much in evidence.