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What's with all the public outbursts?

There are plenty of theories about the recent incidents of rudeness involving Kanye West, Serena Williams and Rep. Joe Wilson. Some worry it's the manifestation of a deepening social dysfunction.

September 16, 2009|Robin Abcarian

So maybe it's not swine flu, but the nation seems to have come down with a serious case of impulse control disorder.

Symptoms include (but are not limited to) Kanye West snatching Taylor Swift's moment at MTV's Video Music Awards; Serena Williams threatening, with expletives, to cram her ball down a lineswoman's throat at the U.S. Open; and Rep. Joe Wilson's inability to contain the urge to denigrate President Obama while the president was in the middle of addressing the nation on a topic of critical importance.

Wilson's House colleagues formally chastised the South Carolina Republican on Tuesday.

In the wake of these high-profile outbursts across disciplines -- politics, entertainment and sports -- many Americans have found themselves asking what is going on. To some, it's not a coincidence but rather the manifestation of a deepening social dysfunction.

"It's extremely regrettable, but not shocking," said Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist. "And there is a viral element to it. It's like Malcolm Gladwell's book 'The Tipping Point.' You get to a critical mass of something and it spreads like wildfire."

Theories for the behavior abound.

Some say it reflects a general collapse of manners, rooted in the anti-authoritarian strains of the late 1960s. Some offer a psychological explanation: that such outbursts reveal the person beneath the mask of a public persona. Some see an element of racial animus at work.

And one etiquette authority offered an uncomplicated explanation, in particular for West: He just wanted attention.

Schwartz, a political liberal, believes that the flowering of rude behavior -- call it the New Boorishness -- took root in the late 1960s when students began challenging authority "for a very good reason: Authority was leading us into Vietnam."

Over time, she said, "we have shredded respect for every kind of institution, every kind of profession, and have indulged ourselves and our emotions at every level of society, from how kids treat their parents, how students treat their teachers and all the way up the line. So why wouldn't it ultimately get onto the tennis courts and presidential speeches?"

Many have bemoaned the erosion of civility represented by these rants, but cultural critic and writer Joseph Epstein thinks civility was purely a facade to begin with.

The public figures who crossed the line have careers that generally require them to create "false PR personalities," Epstein said. "These were eruptions of true, loathsome feelings after all these years of suppression and having to pretend to be such sweet characters when they are not. What they all were before is as phony as can be. They all just said, 'I can't take it anymore,' and they all fell apart."

Drew Westen, an Emory University psychologist who has studied the effects of unconscious racism in political contests, said it was no accident that most of these incidents involved blacks and whites. West is black and Swift is white, he noted. And Wilson, who yelled at Obama, is white.

"I think racial tensions on both sides are pretty high right now," Westen said. "It's on a new level now because it's not conscious or overt. It's bubbling underneath. What might have led to a small reaction or a thought to yourself that something is unfair is now popping out of people's mouths."

It is not clear that losing control exacts a price, which is part of the problem.

True, University of Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount was recently suspended for the season after punching a rival team's defensive end in the jaw, essentially ending Blount's college career.

And Williams, who first denied making a threat, did pay a literal price. She was fined $10,500 and the incident is being investigated by the International Tennis Federation. But the night after her verbal assault, she was onstage at the Video Music Awards joking about her outburst.

Some conservative circles have made a hero of Wilson, who yelled "You lie!" at Obama during the president's speech on healthcare reform last week before a joint session of Congress.

It has been reported that Wilson's campaign has raised nearly $1 million (though his Democratic opponent has also reportedly received a windfall).

Some praised Obama for remaining above the fray, but Westen, a Democratic consultant, thinks he missed an important opportunity:

"The president had just said in his speech that he is happy to work with people who want solutions, but 'I will call you out' to those who are getting in the way and being uncivil. And then Joe Wilson calls him a liar to his face in front of the whole nation. He should have said, 'Excuse me, I believe someone just called me a liar. Would you like to stand up?' "

That Obama did not do that, said Westen, "was an object lesson in why the right continues to escalate their incivility."

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