Can we be candid here? Can we just say this plainly?
The public is a bunch of rude, obnoxious jerks.
OK, so I overstate. A little. Yes, there are exceptions. I'm not such a bad guy and you, of course, are a paragon of civility. But the rest of them? A cavalcade of boors, boobs, bums, bozos, and troglodytes.
So it is small wonder the tale of Steven Slater has hit a nerve. The precise sequence of events is still being sorted out at this writing. The initial story was that Slater, a flight attendant for JetBlue, got into it with a woman who cursed him when he asked her not to stand up to retrieve her bags while the plane was still taxiing. At some point, Slater was apparently hit in the head; his attorney says the woman slammed the storage bin on him.
This much is certain: Slater went on the plane's public address system and, as quoted by one witness, declared, "To the passenger who just called me a motherf-----, f--- you. I've been in this business 28 years and I've had it." He then grabbed himself a beer from a service cart, deployed the plane's evacuation slide, slid down to the tarmac and drove home. He was arrested soon after.
To concede the obvious: Yes, it was a dumb stunt. He's lucky no one on the ground was injured by the slide.
But still ... it resonates, doesn't it?
Some people are framing what happened as a cautionary tale of workplace stress. It seems to me, though, that the episode speaks more pointedly to something larger: the growing incivility of all our daily lives.
If the initial account stands up, we're talking about the incivility of the passenger. If an alternate account turns out to be true - some passengers say Slater ignited the confrontation with his own brusque behavior - we might find guilt on both sides.
But either version vindicates a belief that simple courtesy has become a lost art. I'm reminded of how, when we kids would ask my mom for something, she would prompt us: "What's the magic word?" The magic word was "please." And when you'd received what you'd asked for, there was another magic word: "thank you."
In the olden days, we thought manners mattered. Apparently we no longer do. And while that observation can't be quantified, it is one many of us share. A number of surveys, including one from Rasmussen Reports in 2009, find that an overwhelming majority of us (75 percent, according to Rasmussen) think Americans are becoming ruder.
I certainly do. The other day I'm at the cable company and there's this guy whose service has apparently been shut off for nonpayment. He's paid his bill and the woman at the counter says she can have someone out the next day to reconnect him, "if you wish."
"If I wish? That's a stupid-ass thing to say!"
"Well, sir, we need to make sure someone will be home."
"You didn't need to make sure I was home before you f--- up my s--."
Those of us in line pretended not to hear. But if that woman had gone Steven Slater on that guy and shoved his cable box where the sun don't shine, I think she'd have gotten a standing ovation.
From that cable office to Rep. Joe Wilson hollering "You lie!" in the middle of a presidential speech to the banal meanness of the average Internet message board, people seem to have gone utterly bat poop. So on behalf of you and me, let me tell the boorish public this:
I don't need to hear you on your cell describing your skin rash. Don't curse at me when I'm crossing the street on a green light. That thing next to your steering wheel is called a turn signal. I paid $7.50 to hear the movie, not you. Obey your flight attendant. Other people have feelings, too.
Please remember those things and nobody gets hurt.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.