He was slight and slender. He couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8. He was on his knees in the middle of Wal-Mart. I never heard his voice but his lips snarled and his eyes flamed as his middle finger fiercely accosted the woman I assumed to be his mother.
The image is indelibly imprinted in my mind…
I remember striding towards him and making eye contact. There wasn’t a hint of embarrassment or shame in his eyes as I passed by—just rage.
I had three reflexive thoughts.
The first was—well never mind about that thought.
The second thought was a question: I wonder where he learned to give someone the finger—anyone much less his mom.
Now, in all fairness it may very well be the case that he discovered this from her. (Moms have been known to model such things to their children.) Maybe it was his father or some other relative. Perhaps friends or TV or movies are to be blamed.
Obviously we’ll never know where he learned it, but of this we can be certain: He did learn it. That is, flipping the bird isn’t instinctual. It comes from environment not instinct.
Environment brings me to my third thought. This kid’s actions incriminate a larger society than just his little world. Anger, vulgarity, and entitlement describe the ever-darkening spirit threatening American culture today. How else to explain the coarse insanities of politics, arts, and religion?
In 2008 Os Guinness observed,
Beyond any doubt, the United States in the last generation has suffered a serious breakdown in public civility that is the result of an even more serious decline in the quality of American common life. . . .
The symptoms of the collapse of public life are widespread . . . the shrinking of a book-and-newspaper-reading public, the growth of gated communities and constant surveillance, the rise of political primaries and the weakening of political parties, the decline of elections into public-relations contests, the degradation of political deliberation and debate . . . the rise of political dynasties and celebrity candidates . . . the appearance of billionaire politicians . . . the exponential growth of secrecy and classified documents.1
The above words—like the little boy with the big anger—are around eight years old. What could Guinness write 8 years hence? And what kind of young man will this child be then and what sort of world will he inhabit?
1 Os Guiness, The Case for Civility, p.p. 81-82