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Mind your fucking manners!

A new CTV documentary discusses the downfall of common decency

You can tell you’re in for a good ride when a television documentary starts with the words: “Hello, I’m William Shatner, and I’m here to tell you how fucking rude people are these days.” That’s right, To Hell With Manners! The Decline of Civility – directed by documentary veteran John Curtin and narrated by William Shatner – is definitely worth a watch.

Airing this Saturday, the documentary is a 40-minute blurb on bad manners in contemporary society. It features chats with journalists, etiquette specialists, office workers, pregnant women, women pretending to be pregnant, victims of the Internet, chubby highway cops, and McGill’s very own Professor Jonathan Sterne. It takes bits of North American life and presents them on an entertaining platter.

While the documentary is often funny, it also has a more serious side. The situation of April Branum, the overweight woman who didn’t realize she was pregnant due to her size, is at first absurd to the point of hilarity. However, she presents a good case when she expresses her grievances over slander on the Internet. When one woman pretends to be pregnant on the Toronto subway and is not once offered a seat, you can’t help but feel slightly crestfallen at the current state of manners in society.

Don’t expect too much in-depth analysis from this film, however. While rebellious hippies are regarded as one potential origin of recent incivility, Curtin only briefly interviews a handful of professors, a specialist on office manners, and a lamenting journalist about the particular theory. Questions fail to enlighten and the documentary is nothing more than thought-provoking.

It would have been nice to see deeper questions asked, such as trying to pinpoint a possible moment in time that tipped the balance: maybe it was Marilyn Monroe revealing her “scandalous” white underpants in Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch that had an impact on audiences’ behavior; perhaps it was a movie like The Graduate, where Dustin Hoffman’s exceedingly bored character relishes in rudeness and breaking society boundaries.

One theme in particular was very interesting; Josh Freed, the lamenting journalist, stated, “Rudeness and rage are a by-product of the increasingly anonymous world we live in.” Rampant celebrities, according to the documentary, also play a major role. This strikes true. The modern-day anti-hero is no longer Humphrey Bogart as the troubled Rick Blaine; it’s Samuel L. Jackson as Pulp Fiction’s loudmouth Jules Winnfield. Our Cary Grant may well be George Clooney, but Brad Pitt in Fight Club is every boy’s wet dream.

What could shine a light on the problem is the “online dis-inhibition effect.” The Internet, because it is often impersonal, is a perfect place for people to vent their rage and insecurities without receiving direct retribution. How many forum threads or YouTube comments have you read that slander and put down someone’s honest work? How many ignorant readers state their misguided opinions and insult writers? The key that the documentary mentions is anonymity: people have distanced themselves from one another, so that they no longer respect others as human beings.

It is likely that discourtesy gradually emerged: rising stress and technology, as To Hell With Manners! states, may cause angrier drivers, co-workers, and pedestrians. Maybe bad manners are just another product of history – there is no definite perpetrator in this “conspiracy without conspirators.” It could all be part of our changing sexual mores. Perhaps society uses the degeneration of manners as a kind of catharsis for underlying problems that are even more deeply rooted.

The film only briefly touches on these problems, but that’s okay. Take it for what it is: a documentary that is entertaining, thought-provoking, and, well, narrated by William “Fucking” Shatner! Thinking of wasting time watching random YouTube videos and commenting on them angrily? Watch this instead.

To Hell With Manners! The Decline of Civility airs on CTV this Saturday at 7 p.m.