- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 15, 2009

It’s been an epic week for bad behavior. Narcissism, it seems, knows no boundaries these days. In politics, music, sports - it was all about me.

On Wednesday, Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican, shouted, “You lie,” during President Obama’s address to Congress. And over the weekend, the arena for bad manners shifted from politics to sports.

First, tennis player Serena Williams yelled threateningly and swore at a line judge during the U.S. Open semifinals. Then, Michael Jordan, at his basketball Hall of Fame induction, took ungracious potshots at those who might have stood in his way on his ascent to becoming the greatest basketball player.

The week of behaving badly culminated Sunday night, when rapper Kanye West, uninvited, strolled onto the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards, interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video.

AP VIDEO: Click here.

“Taylor, I’m really happy for you, and I’m gonna let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time,” Mr. West said, to a chorus of boos.

Those with the belligerent voice may well be right on the merits - replays certainly left room for doubt that Williams had, as the line judge ruled, foot faulted. But that wasn’t the point. It was not what they were saying, it was how they were saying it that struck the sour chord.

“This is generally a sign of a lack of attunement to one’s environment and to other people,” said Drew Pinsky, popular television addiction specialist and co-author of “The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America.”

“It used to be that when children didn’t get their way, they would throw a temper tantrum,” said Mark DeMoss, an Atlanta public relations firm owner and co-founder of the Civility Project, an online resource that encourages respectful behavior in politics. “Now we are seeing adults behaving the same way. That seems to be a troubling trend: If we don’t get our way, we resort to crazy behavior.”

In the end, public bellowing doesn’t do that much to help the cause, Mr. DeMoss said.

“We’re not accomplishing anything by standing up and interrupting,” he said. “Take Joe Wilson, for instance. The lion’s share of debate and discussion the last week has been about his outburst, not about whether or not the health care bill does or does not include insurance for illegals.”

P.M. Forni, co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project and author of “The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude,” said what we are seeing is somewhat of a perfect storm in society. Take self-absorption, combine it with hyperinformality and stir it with a time crunch that gives people the perception there is no time to think of others, and we have displays like we have seen in the past week, Mr. Forni said.

“Industrialized societies are very much marked by stress and anonymity,” he said. “Those are two very powerful components of a culture that encourages uncivilized behavior. When we are stressed, we are less considerate and also more inclined to be angry and explode in a rude attack, such as road rage. When we feel we are anonymous, we don’t think we have to slow it down enough to be kind to others.

“The acts we have seen are impulsive,” Mr. Forni said. “We do not slow down enough to think before acting or speaking.”

In the age of social media and viral videos, the fallout is also quick, as are the apologies.

By Monday morning, there was already a YouTube “mashup” video combining Mr. West’s outburst with Mr. Wilson’s. There were polls such as “Are you on Team West or Team Swift?” (Team Swift, not surprisingly, held a large lead by midday.)

There also were Twitter posts galore from other musicians. Said pop star Pink: “My heart goes out to Taylor Swift. She is a sweet and talented girl and deserved her moment. She should know we all love her.” Another Pink post called Mr. West an expletive.

Singer Katy Perry said Mr. West’s outburst toward the 19-year-old Miss Swift was comparable to “stepping on a kitten.”

Said singer Kelly Clarkson: “What happened to you as a child?? Did you not get hugged enough??”

“I just pity you because you’re a sad human being,” she added.

Mr. West apologized in a blog later Sunday: “I’m sooooo sorry to Taylor Swift and her fans and her mom. I spoke to her mother right after. I’m in the wrong for going on stage and taking away from her moment! Beyonce’s video was the best of this decade. … I’m sorry to my fans if I let you guys down.”

Beyonce, who later won the Video of the Year (her “Single Ladies” video, incidentally, was not nominated in the category for which Miss Swift won), called Miss Swift back onto the stage to finish her speech.

Williams, whose expletive-fueled tirade against a lineswoman earned her a match-point penalty during her during her semifinal match with Kim Clijsters, later apologized to the public in a statement and to the lineswoman in an e-mail.

“[Saturday] night everyone could truly see the passion I have for my job,” Williams said. “Now that I have had time to gain my composure, I can see that while I don’t agree with the unfair line call, in the heat of battle I let my passion and emotion get the better of me and as a result handled the situation poorly.”

That’s an example of the nonapology apologies characteristic of a narcissistic culture, said Dr. Pinksy, who will host a forum on celebrities, Twitter and narcissism later this month in Los Angeles.

“We’ve lost track of what an apology is,” he said. “An apology shouldn’t be, ‘I’m sorry I did something that upset you.’ People are not setting it right. We try to get around it.”

Williams posted a second apology to her Web site on Monday, saying: “I want to sincerely apologize to the lineswoman, Kim Clijsters, the USTA, and tennis fans everywhere for my inappropriate outburst. I’m a woman of great pride, faith and integrity, and I admit when I’m wrong. I need to make it clear to all young people that I handled myself inappropriately and it’s not the way to act.”

Mr. Wilson has since apologized to Mr. Obama. Meanwhile, he and his Democratic opponent, Rob Miller, have raised close to $2 million since Wednesday’s outburst, which has also raised Mr. Wilson’s public profile, making him in demand on cable news shows.

“If someone says, ‘I’m sorry,’ we have to give them the benefit of the doubt,” Mr. DeMoss said. “It would be uncivil not to accept the apology.”

Even if the apology is more for placating public opinion rather than an honest mea culpa, only the one giving the apology knows for sure.

“No one can really look into his heart and say whether they are sincere,” Mr. Forni said. “But in the long run, feelings may follow action if you do it enough.”

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