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The Death of Decency

Published in Blog on December 05, 2023 by Jakob Fay

Mysteriously, in 2023, a new, stupid, and abominable fad took the internet by storm — chucking random objects at on-stage celebrities.

On Monday, video surfaced on X of actress Florence Pugh on stage with the cast of “Dune: Part Two,” where she was struck in the face by an unidentified object thrown from the crowd. “Ow,” she appears to mutter as her co-stars around her, including Austin Butler and Timothée Chalamet, react.

The troubling incident joins an ever-growing list of similar attacks, a frustrating new trend symptomatic of a larger cultural problem — a general decline in public decency.   

In 2023 alone, artists Cardi B, Latto, Harry Styles, Morgan Wallen, Drake, Bebe Rexha, Ava Max, Kelsea Ballerini, and P!nk have all been hit while performing with everything from phones, boots, and in one particularly bizarre instance, a bag of the attacker’s late mom’s ashes. At least one performer was hospitalized; multiple more were forced to temporarily suspend their shows.

SEE ALSO: Individualism is killing America

But this strange fascination with pelting celebrities is not the only symptom of our society's dwindling courtesy.

Also this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that movie theater behavior had “gone off the reels,” sparking a national conversation about cinema decorum.

The Guardian laid out several examples: “In Maidstone, a woman took her ticketless child into Barbie; an act that resulted in a stand-up, full-volume physical fight. A Brazilian Barbie screening ended with a similar brawl, apparently because a woman let her child watch YouTube throughout the movie. Nor is this confined to Barbie. In June, a fight broke out at a screening of The Little Mermaid in Florida, and in March the same thing happened in France at the end of Creed III. Meanwhile, Twitter is awash with tales of poor cinema etiquette, from talking during films to taking photos during films.”

The rise in such disruptive conduct led CNN opinion writer Sara Stewart to conclude we “no longer know how to behave in public.”

“We are officially in a Bad Audience Summer,” she opined.

SEE ALSO: Tocqueville on the deceptive nature of tyranny

Unfortunately, the bad behavior is not confined to movie houses or concerts, either.

According to a study from the International Air Transport Association, on-flight physical abuse incidents increased 61% in 2022 over 2021. Passenger non-compliance on airlines is also on the rise (and it has nothing to do with mask mandates).

Moreover, not even the so-called happiest place on earth can escape this endemic plague of indecency — last week, a fully naked man was arrested in Disneyland after swimming through “It’s a Small World” while nude. The shocking incident follows multiple in-park fights this year, three suicides in the Disney garage, and reports of guests defecating in line.

Evidently, Sara Stewart was right — we no longer know how to behave in public.

But what is behind this bizarre dilemma? A tattered social fabric? Selfishness? Post-pandemic behavioral “issues”? To some extent, maybe.

But ultimately, our problem is far more sinister than that.

In his book “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self,” Carl Trueman, borrowing heavily from sociologist Philip Rieff, lays out an overly simplistic but effective account of human history, into which selfhood is divided into four major phases: The ages of the political man, religious man, economic man, and psychological man. In each “era” preceding the modern one (the age of the psychological man), Trueman contends that humans generally looked outside themselves to find meaning — looking, chronologically, first to the polis, then to religion, and subsequently, to the individual's ability to make money and provide for his family. In each of those spans, it would not have been unthinkable for man to willingly subject himself to “those communal beliefs, practices, and institutions that were bigger than the individual,” for such external forces defined his existence anyway.

But the psychological man, for the first time in history (according to this model), reversed that outlook and internalized his sense of identity and selfhood. Gradually, external standards — no matter how great or insignificant — became problematic and negligible. After all, who’s to say that this man — a master of his own fate, so to speak — can or cannot do anything?

Robert Bellah, a contemporary of Rieff, identified the same problem: “today it is ‘intolerable’ to compel the individual to defer uncritically to the authority of others. He or she should be free to live however he or she thinks best. All assertions of the existence of a common moral authority in matters of personal morality, for example, in matters concerning sex and family, are manifestations of ‘authoritarianism.’”

Incidentally, it may be easier to accept this theory in regard to “bigger” issues; but why, if man is willing to flaunt conventional mores as they pertain to “sex and family,” the so-called “big” issues, wouldn’t he be O.K. with doing the same to a thousand “lesser” rules (a.k.a., those that shape his conduct in public)? The religious man, for example, recognizes the authority of the church and, therefore, would not gripe if asked to wear a suit and tie on Sundays. The church’s will, he knows, supersedes his own. Our friend, the psychological man, however, does not recognize the authority of the church (or any other authority) and accordingly feels no need to wear a suit and tie or adhere to any dress code at all.

In essence, this convoluted expression suggests that we have internalized morality to such an extent that external standards and expectations are now deemed offensive. And in so doing, we have disincentivized decency.

Now, you might think I’m reading way too deeply into a few assaults on performers and a naked man at Disneyland. But each new incident, each new broken standard, raises a red flag, and taken together, they paint an unsettling picture of the grave illness at the heart of American society. Sure, tensions are high, tempers are short, and politics are exhausting. But that’s not why we forgot how to behave ourselves. Our root problem runs far deeper: we have sacrificed decency on the altar of self, and now, we are living in that fallout. Self reigns supreme, and as social critic Tom Wolfe predicted in 1976, "All rules are broken!"

As it turns out, that includes even rules about not throwing cell phones and boots at celebrities. 

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