Is George Will a Lout?

The June 28 San Francisco Chronicle ran a letter to the editor accusing George Will of hypocrisy regarding that crown jewel of Burkean-conservative values, civility. The author, Jo Alice Canterbury, is a retired airline stewardess who remembers Will as “one of the most unpleasant and uncivil” passengers she ever served. How can Will rail against incivility in his writing (Canterbury cited this recent column, which was also attacked recently by Slate’s David Edelstein) when he treats the help so abominably? But after examining Will’s column and Canterbury’s letter, Chatterbox thinks the hypocrisy charge is mostly a bum rap.

Will’s piece begins by denouncing the gross-out humor of movies such as There’s Something About Mary and South Park, then moves on to this cultural diagnosis:

Incivility is becoming normal. The Zagat Survey, which reviews restaurants, reports that complaints about service have tripled in five years. Customer service complaints by air travelers doubled last year. The shrew at the next table, bellowing into her cell phone? That imbecile in the car behind you, who tailgated up to the intersection and now is leaning on his horn because you want to turn left? Nancy Ann Jeffrey, writing in the Wall Street Journal, suggests, plausibly, that America’s epidemic of such rudeness may be a “dark side of the New Economy.”

Hold on, Canterbury answers. When she encountered Will in the first-class section of an airplane, this was how (she says) he behaved:

I greeted him; he returned my “Good morning!” with a nonverbal glare. “Uh-oh,” I thought. “He is not a morning person,” so my flying partner and I treated him with special care. He remained noncommunicative, dismissing us with monosyllabic replies to our questions regarding our en route services. At one point, he frowned and flicked his wrist impatiently to apprise me that he wanted his coffee cup removed immediately.

Aren’t we talking about two different notions of incivility? Will’s notion is in-your-face rude behavior that’s invasive: penis jokes, slipshod service from waiters and flight attendants, loud cell-phone conversations you can’t ignore, etc. Canterbury’s notion is mere unfriendliness: not saying “good morning,” not wanting to discuss at length why you chose the chicken over the lasagna, not smiling when you’re trying to get rid of an empty coffee cup. Reading Canterbury’s letter, Chatterbox guessed that Canterbury grew up in the South, where people are less apt to distinguish affirmative rudeness from the scowling, leave-me-alone demeanor Canterbury attributes to Will. This turned out to be correct. In a phone conversation, Canterbury told Chatterbox that she was raised in New Orleans (though she also lived in Manhattan for awhile, “so I broadened my horizons in terms of civility”).

Canterbury gave Chatterbox a few additional details about the flight, which she thinks was a nonstop from San Francisco to Washington. Will, she said, was seated at the front of a DC-10. Upon spotting him, she resolved to talk with him about baseball, about which Will had written several books. But after she and her fellow flight attendant observed that “he would hardly answer us about whether he wanted coffee,” she resolved to leave him alone. Chatterbox told Canterbury that he believed Canterbury’s definition of incivility was at odds with Will’s. She replied (politely): “”I think that it’s possible. … When someone isn’t courteous to me, I consider that uncivil.” But Canterbury bridled a bit when Chatterbox went on to argue that an airplane is an environment where conventionally polite means of escaping unwanted conversation–most of the time you can’t even get out of your chair–are unavailable. Here is her response:

I don’t think that anybody needs to be rude and unpleasant. You can convey that you don’t want to be bothered or that you want to be left alone in a civil way. … The majority of people, especially people who are well known, let you know that in a way that doesn’t make you feel diminished. He was very condescending.

Chatterbox, who prides himself on never talking to strangers on airplanes, will concede this much to Canterbury: When signaling you want to be left alone, it’s best to smile and say “please” and “thank you.” Failing to be polite would seem especially risky when you’re recognizable to strangers, because those strangers are liable to retaliate by, say, writing annoyed letters to the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Another argument in Canterbury’s favor is that the Will column in question (rather unwisely) broadened its definition of incivility toward the end. Elaborating on Nancy Ann Jeffrey’s notion that incivility is the fault of the New Economy, Will derided those

for whom today’s technological marvels are mere instruments to facilitate their self-absorption. People who, while dining or driving or walking down the street are electronically disassociated from their social context, are not so much antisocial as unsocial. But the result is the same: boorishness.

If it’s boorish to pay more attention to your cell phone or your PalmPilot than to strangers walking down the street, it must perforce also be boorish to fail to answer when your flight attendant says, “Good morning.” However, here Will is probably guiltier of letting irascibility devolve into sloppy thinking than he is of hypocrisy.

What does Will himself have to say about Canterbury’s letter? He didn’t reply to Chatterbox’s request for comment, delivered by phone and by e-mail to his assistant. By Canterbury’s reckoning, that would probably make Will rude. By Will’s reckoning, however, Chatterbox’s request that Will reply within two hours–necessitated by the pitiless deadlines of online journalism–would probably be just one more example of how the New Economy is fostering rudeness.

[Update, July 2, 2000: Jim Romenesko’s Media News site has solicited field reports on the Rudeness Question. Most, but not all, of the respondents found Will to be reasonably polite. To read the comments, click here.]