When I observe the latest trends in men's dress — no ties, unshaven faces — I get the sense that America and the world have gotten lazy and uncaring: about appearances, conventions and what others may think. Some might argue that this is only a fashion trend, perhaps even a good thing, with fewer of us hung up on appearances, conventionality and how others may judge us.
But I believe it's one of many small signs of something different, more significant — a statement of where our culture finds itself and where it's heading. That something different is also a cultural lethargy — an obliviousness to the world around us, a self-centeredness that equals apathy, which can lead to the deterioration of culture and social interaction.
T he dictionary defines apathy as "the feeling of not having much emotion or interest; a lack of interest or concern." Americans are generally apathetic about voting, about knowing American history, and about each other. Walk through an airport these days — most commuters are focused on their iPhones, text messages or other electronics that exclude talking or interacting with other human beings. I laughed at a past episode of Larry David's television show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which Larry found himself seated in a restaurant by himself next to a young man, also by himself, having a loud cellphone conversation. As Larry became more annoyed at the caller's insensitivity, he started loudly talking to himself, intending to annoy the caller. The caller paused, and said to Larry, "Would you please not talk so loud, you're interrupting my phone conversation." To which Larry replied, "Excuse me, but you're interrupting my conversation with myself!"
Perhaps we've all been tempted to copy that response as we've observed callers, insensitive to those nearby, loudly carrying on a conversation with someone else, amounting to an invasion of our privacy. To me, it illustrates citizen apathy, an indifference to what others may think.
To those who say, "Lighten up," I say, "Where's your respect for others or yourself?"
Dressing for work signals a respect for the work one does and a respect for those nearby. A prominent trial lawyer friend always wears a coat and tie to work, usually a sharply tied bow tie. Why? When he dresses for the office, he feels like he's going to work. When he dresses down, he doesn't.
Old newsreels of World Series baseball games from the last century show that society is changing. Back then, men wore suits and ties — and hats — to major league baseball games. Today, anything goes, as far as dress is concerned. The same is true of airplane travel, where one can observe all forms of dress, from tank tops to jeans to even pajamas. The sad part is that dressing down can be a sign of disrespect for others that often signals personal apathy and irresponsibility.
As cultural apathy increases, so does cultural deterioration. Standards for personal conduct reflect cultural standards, and when they deteriorate, society does, too. A recent debate.org poll revealed that 86 percent of Americans believe cultural deterioration is caused by selfishness and instant gratification. Just 14 percent disagreed, arguing that societal standards merely evolve. Granted, standards do evolve, but societies also remain responsible for upholding standards that are valuable.
J onathan Alger, the president of James Madison University in Virginia, has made it a campaign for JMU students to develop the habit of holding a door for others. He declared recently that he spends part of his busy life handwriting thank-you notes (also a lost art) to others and stressing the importance of common courtesy to all. Next time you pass through a doorway in a public place, see how many people hold the door for you. And, inversely, hold the door open for others. Hopefully, many will acknowledge your act of politeness.
Signs of cultural deterioration are all around us. But that doesn't mean we should accept such apathy and self-centeredness. Each of us can be an example by how we present ourselves. Don't want to clean up and dress for work? Others will follow your lead.
A careless culture leads to a deteriorating society. ♦