Sunday, December 11, 2005

Not for a long, long time have parents enforced the notion that children should be seen and not heard. All us fogies, even young ones, flinch when the kids talk at loud length on their cell phones at school, at play and in their living rooms. They turn the music up as high as it can go no matter where they are.

Let’s hear it for one old fogey who has invented a little payback. An engineer in Wales, noticing that teenagers hear sound at higher pitches than older grown-ups, and weary of having to listen to loud music where teenagers congregate, has developed a tiny machine he calls the “Mosquito.” The Mosquito blasts a piercing high frequency wail that sends teenagers scurrying. Adults are merely amused because the pitch is too high for their ears to pick up. At last, a weapon for civil(ity) defense.

But the fundamental issue isn’t noise, but rudeness and a dearth of manners. We’ve all bemoaned the culture dominated by images that exploit the ever-shrinking attention span, but we neglect to confront the sources of noise that assault the ear everywhere. The offenders come in all ages, races and from every economic level. Equal opportunity cell phones ring loudly in restaurants, theaters, trains, and doctors’ waiting rooms.

Sports fans once focused on the game, enjoying conversation before and after the double play or the dash off-tackle for a crucial first down, but now we’re forced to endure loud thumping, wailing and screaming between innings, after touchdowns, and during timeouts. No one can concentrate even for a minute without a rush of adrenalin pumped up by noise.

Every generation finds ways to push the envelope of collective neurosis, of course. Nothing is as much fun as irritating elders, but now the Culture of Rudeness comes at us from many directions, amplified. Christopher Lasch wrote “The Culture of Narcissism” in 1979, how modern man needed to look into the mirror to validate his sense of self. The new narcissists have replaced mirrors of reflection with the yearning to attract attention, good or bad, or to shut out everyone else to indulge the nirvana of self-absorption.

“The self-esteem movement nascent when Lasch was writing has reached maturity,” writes Christine Rosen in Policy Review, published by the Hoover Institution, “and its progeny, the children of Lasch’s 1970s narcissists, are now forming their own families. Many of them embrace an increasingly egalitarian family structure, uncritically and enthusiastically use personal technologies that alter the rhythms of private life, and isolate family members from each other.” Whether they’re talking “privately” on cell phones or listening to a private thumpity-bump-bump through earphones connected to their iPods, they can’t relate consciously to others around them. One teenager pinpointed a major problem for the New York Times: “The best way for parents to teach their children to be polite and respectful is not just discipline but also providing a good model being respectful themselves — of other adults and yes, even of youth.” But modern families spend so little time together that it’s difficult to be a model, good or ill.

One teenage driver killed a bicyclist the other day in Colorado because he was text messaging on his cellular phone while driving when he should have been watching the road. This kind of horrible carelessness is likely to be repeated as technology triumphs over good sense. At my neighborhood pub I frequently see couples who not only don’t talk to each other, they don’t talk to anyone else — because they’re both talking into their cell phones.

The father of famously bad manners was the 18th-century French writer Jean Jacques Rousseau, who in the name of spontaneity, identified social formalities as the supreme villain for imposing limits on the noble savage. In his view the tyrants of society ruined children, inhibiting their natural instincts, with rigid rules of behavior. Fast forward two centuries, and a popular television cartoon depicts the winner of a burping contest who is rewarded for high achievement, and moves on to a competition for passing gas.

Good manners have never been enforceable, but were once accepted because they underpin notions of right and wrong. Lynne Truss, whose “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves,” a best-selling book about grammar, of all things, has followed it with a best-seller, “Talk to the Hand,” about rudeness. “Just as the loss of punctuation signaled the vast and under-acknowledged problem of illiteracy, so the collapse of manners stands for a vast and under-acknowledged problem of social immorality. Manners are based on an ideal of empathy, of imagining the impact of one’s own actions on others.” Rousseau only thought he knew about “uncouth, unpleasant and rude.” Five minutes on any street today and he would beg for mercy.

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