Tantrum International: Is This Who We Are Now?

Just last week one of the stories my network (ABC News) was grappling with concerned yet another explosive encounter involving airline passengers.  This time it was an angry man who randomly punched an innocent passenger who had just stepped off the underground inter-terminal train at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.  A few weeks before, in the same airport, two women had erupted in an angry fight on video at a departure gate, a dual indiscretion that resulted in arrests and missed flights.

Every week, it seems, what has become a never-ending stream of incidents involving misbehaving people make the world of airline travel even less enjoyable.  Assaulted flight attendants, verbally battered gate agents, boorish and loud malcontents in flight too often forcing emergency landings (and their own federal prosecution) have become as commonplace in America as our weekly mass shootings.  Since these disruptive carnivals of incivility feature people acting out like severely undisciplined children, they raise the question of what in the world is going on.

Several categories of childish actors are easily explained, of course, as when emotionally unstable passengers are confronted with a level of transactional stress that exceeds their limits.  But frustration alone – cancelled flights, delayed luggage, less than smooth TSA transits through security, and a hundred other small indignities – fail utterly as a justification for this type of behavior. 

Moreover, when you’re seeking assistance in making something right, barking at agents and flight attendants (and occasionally pilots)  solves absolutely nothing, and, if taken too far, may even earn you a pair of handcuffs and an expensive trip “downtown.”   

There have long been vociferous advocates of the theory that overcrowding of flights and airports is sparking most of these angry, infantile tantrums.  Those advocates cite past experiments that show the uncivil conduct of overcrowded rats, who, when pressured by an overstuffed cage, didn’t play well with each other. But the attempt to apply that finding to humans engaged in air travel would seem to argue that airport fury is an anthropological phenomenon.  In truth, however, even the busiest and largest airports seldom inflict intolerable levels of crowding on passengers, so that, too, fails as either an excuse or explanation.

Certainly the extreme and anxiety-spawning effects of Covid-19, mixed with the indefensible and damaging faux “debates” over whether masks and vaccination requirements were legitimate (they were), pushed a form of rolling paranoia that not everyone could handle.  It is not at all surprising that the number of misbehaving inflight incidents alone declined sharply when the mask requirements were lifted.  But there again, none of those factors justifies acting like an enfant terrible, and we are again left with only one central question: what has so mongrelized the behavioral tolerance of the average American.  Is this who we are now? 

We should pull the term “incivility” back to center stage, because like it or not, the occupants of these United States have become progressively more coarse, unkind, unforgiving, and uncivil.  While it would feel satisfying to meet the problem with a flip phrase such as “Just stop it” (spawning memories of Nancy Reagan’s epically ineffective “Just say no” campaign), we’re dealing with a slippage of kindness and patience which has emerged over decades as a cultural change, and reversing it will take both time and a collective Renaissance in the desire for more civil behavior.

Will Durant wrote many years ago in the context of discussing seismicity that “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”  That is so perfectly true and beautifully stated when applied to earthquakes and tsunamis and what used to be called “continental drift,” but the sentiment is applicable as well to anthropological drift, our slippage to a meaner, less restrained behavioral code.  Civilized behavior, we might paraphrase, exists by societal consent, or it doesn’t exist at all.

We all have a piece of this responsibility.  Do we want a more incendiary population, or is it time to move toward cleaning up our collective act by refusing to tolerate childish behavior from those who are not card-carrying children?  To tolerate boorishness, or to refuse it, that is the question, and it’s well past time to engage this debate.