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Wilson, Williams, West: Are we becoming America the boorish?

Three outbursts – by Joe Wilson, Serena Williams, and Kanye West – leave many clucking over rise of rudeness.

By Correspondent / September 28, 2009

Rep. Joe Wilson let fly with his ‘You lie’ during President Obama’s healthcare address.

Washington Post/AP

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America would not have done well at the Protocol School of Washington these past few weeks.

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Pamela Eyring, the etiquette institution's president, is too well mannered to say the country would have out-and-out flunked. But even she calls the recent spate of public interrupting and microphone grabbing, of tennis-ball threatening and profanity-laced tweeting, of shouting and swearing and half-heartedly apologizing, "totally ridiculous."

"Have we lost our civility?" she asks.

In the fast-paced, 24-hour-news-cycle world, three of anything is a trend – and the recent bad behavior trifecta of Rep. Joe "You Lie" Wilson, R&B star Kanye "Yo Taylor" West, and tennis champ Serena "What I'll Do With This Ball" Williams was enough to prompt some serious national soul-searching.

Are we, we pondered, tweeted, and Facebooked, truly a nation of boors?

Self-reflection spun into more news and more commentary. Some observers rallied to the sides of the disgraced (Wilson has collected at least $1 million in political donations since his outburst); others made news with their derision (Pink, Kelly Clarkson, and even President Obama used profanity to describe West). Meanwhile, the analysts analyzed it all.

The avalanche of attention goes right to the heart of the problem, says manners expert Thomas Farley.

"The chatter out there has become so thick, with Facebook and Twitter and everything, that it's really difficult to be heard anymore," says Mr. Farley, who writes the blog What Manners Most. "Now, if you're not doing outrageous things all the time, you're not getting noticed.… I wouldn't go as far to say that we've all descended into this horrible hell of disrespecting one another, but it gets caught on camera, and then the media goes with it, and it becomes this awful, vicious cycle of people pointing fingers."

Does that suggest that America is entering some new age of incivility?

Ms. Eyring thinks so. So does Jill Kryston, founder of Pennsylvania's Defining Manners – A School of Contemporary Protocol.

"People act as if life is a great big reality show," Ms. Kryston says. "Everybody wants their 15 minutes of fame. And we've lost respect."

These are hardly new concerns, notes Fordham University Prof. Mark Caldwell, who wrote "A Short History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals and Misbehavior in Modern America."

"Americans always say that manners are getting worse. Nobody ever says that we're getting better," he says. Every six months or so, he says, there will be a public outcry after some unmannered incident. "And it just happens that recently there were three, in three different cultural areas."

A recap:

On Sept. 9, Representative Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina, interrupted the president's televised speech to Congress by shouting "You lie!" after Mr. Obama said healthcare legislation would not provide taxpayer-funded coverage for illegal immigrants.