Terminating Civility – Rise of the ATM Machines

January 9, 2010

Bet that phone was a "must-have" in 1987

For a number of months, with so many other events to write about on the world scene, I have not fulfilled my promise to discuss the second pillar of incivility. Several readers have kept me honest by sending emails to remind me of this and I want to take the time to complete the picture of the three key components of incivility. Once we’ve identified the root causes, we have a higher probability of finding solutions together.

Initially, I identified the core of incivility. The rise of the “I” centric world has been a destroyer of community, of personal relationship and ultimately of civility. If we extend the pillar analogy to include the foundation laid by the “I” centric position, we’d call “I” the stylobate of our temple of incivility. The stylobate is the uppermost step of the base used by the Greeks to provide a level footing for their columns.

On top of this base, we’ve identified the first pillar – the setting of the intrinsic value of life to zero. Our desensitization to the effect of inhumanity reinforces this notion that the value of human life is a zero. And, many events of the last year have raised a personal concern for me that we may be careening into a repeat of many points in history where the value of human life is considered to be a negative integer. This possibility should really give all of us pause. Think of what it means when someone, some government, some regime decides that the value of a single life is a negative number. To put it in non-mathematical terms; can we recall times in history when a body of people has been seen to add greater value to society if they are eliminated from this world? The result of life being assigned a zero is bad enough; an assignment of a negative value to life leads to entire villages, ethnicities, tribes, cultures and religious communities being hunted down and eliminated.

The second macro event that has led to the rise of incivility has been the explosion of consumerism, beginning slightly before the turn of the 20th century. To read about the beginnings of consumerist behavior, as practiced by the nouvelle riche and first robber barons, I highly recommend “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt”. The book does a fantastic job of documenting the rise of a new breed of wealthy American; the self-made man. The explosion of wealth in this era led to a level consumption not entirely different from what we’ve seen in the 21st century. The successful man in the later 1800’s was defined by a massive home in Manhattan, a stable filled with prized racing horses, art from Europe lining his walls, a stunning wife turned out in the latest fashions and a penchant for playing the stock market as well as a card game or two.

The similarities to today’s consumer should not be discounted in the least; even if these gentlemen were buying carriages instead of Ferrari 458 Italia’s some 140 years ago. This time in American history was truly the beginning of an acquisition-oriented culture that eventually had Gordon Gekko as a poster child. Little did we know that a 1980’s fictional film and its villain would pale in comparison to the type of consumerist anti-heroes we’d see in Ken Lay, Bernie Ebbers, Bernie Madoff and Ramalinga Raju.

As I say so frequently in these postings, it is a very easy thing for us to look at these “bad guys” and wag a finger of shame. It is a much more difficult proposition to look at ourselves and see the same consumption-in-mass-quantities behaviors. But we have been a nation living on borrowed time and money. We have financed every conceivable trapping of excess with our home equity, our credit cards, revolving credit lines and unsecured loans. In the last 25 years, the need to have MORE has far surpassed the need to have enough.  We stopped listening to our grandparents, who survived an economic disaster exponentially greater than the one we find ourselves mired in today. We forgot the lessons of history, where rampant speculation led to short-term material happiness but longer term financial misery over and over again.

Consumerism is a torpedo in the hull of civility. Now, don’t misinterpret what I am suggesting here. I love capitalism. I am just as guilty of riding the more-more-more wave. Seriously, when did I determine our family needed an Xbox 360, PS3 and a Wii? The problem that rabid consumerism creates is the belief that, much like a shark needs to keep swimming to survive; we must keep buying to live. And not just buying, but possessing. We must have the “it” Christmas present of the year. We have to have the latest super-star endorsed basketball shoes for our 3 year old. We need a faster boat, a faster car, a bigger house. How is it that our parents and grandparents were perfectly happy in an 1100 square foot ranch with a carport, but some couple just bought that ranch and sheared the roof off, added 4 more floors and a heli-pad on top – because it is in the “new” up and coming neighborhood?

People are dying in order to buy what they want. While it seems so absurd as to be impossible, people have gotten in to full blown fights and stores have dissolved into anarchist riots over $149.00 flat screen television sets. Guns have been drawn over dolls, toy hamsters, shoes and video games. Store employees have been trampled to death on Black Friday and consumers haven’t even stopped to wipe the blood from their sneakers – let alone try and help.  Consumerism is simply the fiscal manifestation of the phenomenon I’ve already described; “I” versus “you”.

Beyond the impact to civility, the consequences of people buying and consuming multiple times more processed foods, manufactured vehicles and square feet than our very recent ancestors are nearly incalculable in terms of damage to our environment, communities and our fellow man.

I know someone is rolling their eyes right now. “Blah, blah, blah – people dying over basketball shoes, who cares? It doesn’t have anything to do with civility.” Stop rolling them, and consider conflict diamonds. The rampant increase in demand for diamonds directly contributed to the development of the illicit diamond trade in Sierra Leone, Angola, Liberia, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo. Billions of dollars in diamonds were mined in forced labor camps, populated by enslaved children as well as enslaved adults. Around the world, men and women are wearing diamonds that were basically pulled from the graves of more than 500,000 dead men, women and children. These people weren’t in those graves yet, but they were digging their own every single day. If the opposite of civility is inhumanity, you don’t need a jeweler’s loupe to see the incivility inside that rock.

The economic downturn is, thankfully, causing many people around this country and the world to assess what is truly important and necessary. We are learning the lessons of our grandparents, because we refused to learn from their experience. We have fulfilled George Santayana’s prophecy – we ignored history and now we must repeat it. As we have started buying locally, we remember that small business owners are our friends and neighbors. As we clear out closets, garages and attics and give away clothing, toys and furniture; we remember that we can make a difference in the lives of others in a very material way. As we remind our children that saving to buy something means so much more than buying it on credit. As we look at our home and say “it is a good house” instead of “lets add another 2200 square feet”. As we recognize that enough is not a bad thing, we are abandoning a pillar of incivility.

But, will we remember long enough to keep our desire for the next big Christmas fad from inspiring us to elbow another shopper in the face at 5:00 a.m. in the doorbusting-deals morning?