Cell phones in restaurants, flip-flops on airplanes, obscenities on t-shirts. In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer hears from readers who are sick of all of it.
My recent Against The Grain column, "Attack Of The Pig People"(see related stories), seems to have clicked on a cyber-nerve, at least if our inbox is any measure. And for a change – for the first time actually – all the e-mails supported your humble scribe.
The column complained about what I called APES, people afflicted by Aggressive-Passive Exhibitionist Syndrome. These are the oafs and oafettes who bark into their cell phones and wear hats in quiet restaurants, who Q-tip their ears on the subway, who wear gym shorts to national shrines, who stick nasty, sandaled feet in the faces of their neighbors on airplanes, who swear around little kids in public.
Scads of noble readers wrote in to commiserate, complain and plea for help.
"What is most obnoxious is the APES' sense of entitlement," J. from Helena, Montana wrote. "What kind of self-centered upbringing did these people have so that manners and respect are foreign territory, and consideration is what other people show to them?"
"I understand how recluses become that way," J. added. "They get so sick and tired of their fellow man that they can no longer stand the sight -- or scent -- of them." Amen.
Mrs. P.C. wrote, "Everyone yells about 'my rights' but what about the person that doesn't care to hear about who you slept with last night, and the night before, and how much you had to drink?"
Mrs. P.C. and J. raise a crucial ethical issue. The public comportment of APES makes it perfectly obvious that these miscreants do, in fact, feel "entitled" to their APE-like behavior; they feel public cell-phone shrieking and butt-crack exposure is a "right."
Americans have always had an overly expansive view of rights. Without getting too deeply into John Locke and the Founding Fathers, we can dismiss these claims. There's No one need suffer APES in public because you worry that people, even APES, have a right to strut their stuff in public. They don't.
Most readers put APES in a sociological perspective.
"America has become a nation of slobs where it is now common to see people wearing sweatpants, flip-flops, and sleeveless t-shirts to banks, malls, and other public places," wrote L.W. "What happened to the days when these items where only worn in the privacy of one's own home? Too bad the days of common decency are quickly fading."
Others reminded me that APES is not unique to America. "I live in Australia and if you want to see Pig Man en masse you should come to the rural town of Cobden," V.W. wrote. "I would be thrilled if someone were to wear a singlet [undershirt] in public; here the men often go bare-chested and with nothing on their feet. Once the President of the School Council arrived at the school where I teach, covered in cow manure, and I really do mean covered, to have a discussion about school matters." Sorry, mate, we can relate.
"Pig people pull up to the intersection at all hours of the day and night with their boom box stereos blaring and thumping," wrote M.G. from British Columbia. "I believe these people are ill and insecure and want to be noticed by others. They believe people are looking at them thinking to themselves, 'Oh, look how cool he is.'" Well, we agree that they're pretty uncool, eh.
But the vast majority of correspondents simply wanted to know what could be done to curb APES. Few had suggestions, but MM did: "What needs to be done by all of us who feel affronted is face off with the APES and PIGMEN of this latter day world and orally tell them how offensive they and their behavior is. They won't care because not caring and [in]civility are part of APES … "
M.M. is right; pig people, by definition, couldn't care less about getting scolded by strangers. Besides, my family won't let me do it. ("Dad, you are sooooo embarrassing.")
Nonetheless, I now favor a four-point attack on APES. First, despite my family's entreaties, right-minded people must unite and confront APES in action.
Second, parents and, to a lesser degree, teachers must become vigilantes. "Suck" must be treated as a swear word. Hats cannot be worn inside. Cell phones should only be used for emergencies until a child is 40. T-shirts that refer to bodily parts, fluids or functions are verboten. And we'll leave piercing and tattoos for another column.
Third, (and here I bite the hand that feeds me), nice people need to put huge pressure on the entertainment media. Howard Stern, Homer Simpson, Beavis & Butt-Head and innumerable others spawn and legitimize APES. It's good business, apparently.
Finally, when all else fails – and it will – why not bring back the leper colony? If these contagious carriers of crass discourtesy can't be cured, at least they can be isolated.
And if you have better ideas, send them in -- nicely, please.
Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, is based in Washington. For many years, he was a political and investigative producer for The CBS News Evening News With Dan Rather.
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Against the Grain
By Dick Meyer