Is it just me, or are people getting awfully touchy these days?
Within the past week, I have received calls from three consultants and other professionals who had received phone calls from their clients screaming and threatening lawsuits for things the consultants absolutely weren't responsible for. Without getting into specifics, here's what the clients said:
—"Even though you pointed out several reasons why this was a bad deal and I ignored your advice and went ahead with the deal anyway, you are liable for anything that happens because you didn't do enough to prevent me from going forward."
—"I know I authorized you to agree to certain things with the other side, but I've changed my mind now, and I want you to undo this deal and get me my money back, without charge, or else."
It would be a simple matter to just dismiss these people as cranks, crazies or people with anger management issues, but I think it's symptomatic of a much bigger problem in American society today ... one that affects all business owners.
People today — at least in the United States — are a lot different than they were when the Greatest Generation ruled society. Fifty years ago, people were inundated with moral and ethical training from their diapers — they belonged to churches, synagogues and other religious institutions (and actually went to them regularly). They attended schools that drilled civil behavior and personal responsibility into them. Shared community values were rigorously and fearlessly enforced by clergypeople, teachers and others whose authority in such matters was not questioned.
Also, the Greatest Generation knew what true deprivation was — they had survived the Great Depression in the 1930s, World War II in the 1940s and the Cold War in the 1950s — and remembered times when they laid awake at night wondering if there would be food on the table, or if The Bomb would drop. They were a lot tougher than we are, folks, but they simply couldn't be rude or uncivil to anyone who had shared the common causes of those days with them.
Obviously, things are a lot different today. Many people think it's better now than it was back then, and in some ways they are right. We are a much more inclusive society now than we were in the 1950s — women, African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Asian-Americans, LGBTQ folks and other minorities have a lot more clout today (politically, legally and socially) than they did back then. Also, when was the last time you truly worried about when your next meal would come?
Yet in a curious paradox, the more egalitarian, pluralistic and prosperous our society has become, the less civil, courteous and respectful our society has become. There are few, if any, shared values that keep us tied together as citizens of a commonwealth. The maxims "if it feels good, do it" and "live for today" that pop culture drilled into our heads during the 1960s and 1970s have become our guiding credos today.
The decline of authority and shared community values is, of course, not a novel topic. But I don't think a lot of people recognize the root causes of today's ruthless, neurotic, decency-challenged American society. Here they are:
—Fifty years of unparalleled peace and prosperity in America — four generations of Americans who (except for the minority who have actually served in the U.S. military) have never experienced war, pestilence, deprivation or famine firsthand. When you aren't used to bad things happening in your life, even extremely minor bad things can easily be blown way out of proportion (witness the increasingly popular term "microaggression" to describe something someone says or does that bugs you).
—The rise of a secular, multiethnic society that places individual freedom, personal identity and liberation over everything else and offers little, if any, consensus or top-down direction on ethical matters and social etiquette (yes, a lot of those middle-class bourgeois American values the Greatest Generation held dear were B.S., but they were B.S. that held us together as a society and therefore served a useful function).
—The worst economic recession in over 50 years that shook a lot of people's confidence in their economic security — people are scared, and scared people say and do crazy things sometimes.
It is not an exaggeration to say that many, if not most, Americans today are spoiled children (what author Christopher Noxon calls "rejuveniles") who expect a perfect, unblemished life as a natural right of mankind. When something bad or unpleasant happens to somebody, it's somebody else's fault, and damn it, those sons-of-whatever are going to pay!
Everywhere I go, I see bumper stickers saying "question authority." It's time to stop questioning authority, stop talking about rights and start talking about duties and responsibilities — what we owe one another, not what we are owed (to paraphrase former President John F. Kennedy). Or in the words of an old blues song, "Before you accuse (somebody else), take a look at yourself.
If we don't, authority may well be questioned out of existence altogether, and there will be nothing holding us together as a civil society except our creaking, out-of-date legal system.
Cliff Ennico ([email protected]) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.