What Do Public Tirades Say About Our Current State of Civility?

PHOTO Serena Williams is shown on Sept. 12, 2009, left, Kanye West is shown on Sept. 13, center, and Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C, is shown on Sept. 9, 2009.

Taylor Swift's music often centers on the drama and hostility of high school: mean girls, cheating boyfriends, and unrequited love. But at Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards, the teen singing sensation encountered a new breed of incivility.

Moments after Swift received the award for "Best Female Video," rapper Kanye West stormed the stage, plucked the mic from her hand, and announced in front of the entire audience and millions of viewers at home that Beyonce Knowles had the best video and that she, instead of Swift, deserved the Moonman.

Losing Your Cool
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West's stunt came less than 24 hours after tennis giant Serena Williams unleashed a profanity-laden tirade against a line judge at the U.S. Open after what she apparently thought was a questionable call that put her a point away from loss in her semi-final match against Kim Clijsters.

The outburst cost her the match, when she was penalized a point for her behavior.

And, on Sept. 9, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted "You lie!" at President Obama during his health care speech to a joint session of Congress.

By all accounts, last week was chock full of bad behavior. But are these outbursts merely circumstantial, or are they an indication of a shift in our nation's values?

As one might imagine, the recent outbursts have touched off a cascade of talk about the "coarsening" of our culture.

"There is an increasing coarseness to American discourse," columnist George Will said. He blamed our impulsivity and rudeness on a "culture of entitlement" where we celebrate "emotional exhibitionism" on football fields, cable television, and the Internet.

"We've decided that it is therapeutic to express oneself no matter how coarse one's thoughts, and that whatever is therapeutic is good," Will said. "I think we're seeing a kind of emotional exhibitionism whereby people say, 'I said something ghastly, but I said it honestly and sincerely.' And honesty, sincerity, and authenticity are self-legitimizing."

Facing stiff penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct, Serena Williams said in a statement released Sunday she "handled the situation poorly" and thanked her fans "for understanding."

"Last night everyone could truly see the passion I have for my job. 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. I would like to thank my fans and supporters for understanding that I am human and I look forward to continuing the journey, both professionally and personally, with you all as I move forward and grow from this experience," she said in a written statement.

It was not until today that Williams made any public apology to the lineswoman she berated, to Clijsters, and to the U.S. Tennis Association, which runs the U.S. Open.

On the other hand, West took to his blog to apologize to Swift immediately following the incident at the VMA's, saying he was "Sooooo Sorry."

By the end of his post, however, he seemed less apologetic, writing "I'm not crazy y'all. I'm just real."

Today, it appears West has removed that apology from his site.

Wilson seems to be taking the same course as West. After apologizing to the president for his conduct Wednesday night, Wilson has defied demands from Democratic leaders to formally express his regrets on the floor of the House of Representatives.

For satirists like Joel Stein, public incivility is a full employment act.

"This is the kind of stuff I hope for, so it's hard for me to be mad at these people. In 100 years, kids are going to be bemoaning the time when people only yelled out a little bit during presidential pressers," Stein said.

But for many others, this is a serious issue.

Even Obama addressed it in an interview with "60 Minutes" over the weekend.

"The truth of the matter is that there has been, I think, a coarsening of our political dialogue. I will also say that in the era of 24-hour cable news cycles that the loudest, shrillest voices get the most attention," he said. "And so, one of the things that I'm trying to figure out is: How can we make sure that civility is interesting?"

It is worth noting that Williams, West and Wilson were all loudly booed for their behavior.

But, as Stein told ABC News today, "The thing that people like more than being rude is yelling at other people for being rude."

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