Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Are Americans getting uglier?


Examples of boorish and appalling behavior by Americans visiting other cultures are, I'm afraid, still highly evident today. I had hoped that with an increased amount of world travel and media exposure to the different mores of countries around the world, we would never resurrect the image of the Ugly American traveler. However, I am dismayed to see examples of it on the tube and from my own experience watching American tourists disrespect Thailand's temples.

I became addicted to a reality show called "The Amazing Race," which pits teams against each other in a race around the world to win $1 million. Usually there are a couple of contestants who are spoiled, rude or pushy or use offensive language, but they are often eliminated early on.

This season, however, the "good guys" didn't win. Instead, two brothers who repeatedly said horrible things about their taxi drivers and expressed their frustrations by demeaning the citizens of the countries they visited won the big bucks. Their last act of shameless meanness was to put their backpacks in second place in an airport waiting line so they could get a seat close to the front, thus being able to leave the airplane quickly. They did this knowing they were supposed to be third in line. The gracious pair sitting in second place decided not to play dirty and thus may have lost the final prize. One pair in first place at the beginning of the show came in third place, suitable, I think for the girl on that team who called her San Francisco taxi driver a "dumb ass." Where do we get off thinking we are so entitled to win that we can abuse people on the way?

By the way, of the final three, the gentlemen cowboys came in second. They were certainly naive and sometimes awed by the conditions of other cultures, but I loved how they always played fair and didn't resort to profanities or derogatory comments. I sensed that they represent the best of rural America; they must have been raised with manners and a gentlemanly code of honor. How I wish that some of the other contestants had stopped complaining about, for example, the lack of English skills on the part of their hosts. One person even expressed frustration that the Chinese didn't "even" know how to "pronounce their own language," after she had tried to find a place and couldn't pronounce the name correctly.

I know I am culpable for watching. Many reality shows, of course, exhibit gross and ruthless attitudes on the part of contestants trying to win big bucks or fame. Shame on us for encouraging that, and shame on me for watching, even though I so enjoy, in this case, seeing people put in places I have visited. I suppose I get a perverse and smug kick out of feeling more "in tune" with world values than they are. Nonetheless, I am more aware how very refreshing it seems to be getting to see people who treat each other civilly. Here in our small town, I think we are generally polite; if we aren't, it may turn out that the person we curse out is a neighbor or colleague.

Reality shows aside, I think what has happened is that while language has coarsened, now the Internet provides a rather anonymous place to vent rage and treat each other with callous disregard for feelings. A recent spate of Facebook and texting insults by school bullies resulted not only in teenage suicides and, in some cases, horrible beatings of victims, but then, according to reports, grief-stricken parents were subjected to follow-up messages stating their kids deserved what they got. How cruel have we become?

I encounter wonderful teenagers, teachers and parents in my daily life who would never act this way, but it concerns me that often we yawn and shake our heads and do nothing about what I see as a newly vicious streak in people.

I used to hate inserting myself in conflicts, but I remember a time teaching at Santa Monica High School when several boys "mooed" at a young overweight girl who came into my classroom. After she left, I lost my objectivity and announced that I expected that no one would ever be treated that way in my classroom again. My gesture was probably futile, but I'm glad I did it. I would hope that I would speak up again when someone else is being hurt.

I wish the cowboys had won.

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