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(ANDREW SCHWARTZ)
(ANDREW SCHWARTZ)

Judith Timson

Serena, Joe, Kanye: It's a new social disease Add to ...

Our society is clearly in the grip of a new social disease: entitlementia.

That's my diagnosis after three high-profile examples of extreme public rudeness in less than a week. Entitlementia means many of us obviously feel damn entitled to express our point of view whenever and however we feel like it, no matter if it's the right time or place.

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How else can we explain the behaviour of U.S. Congressman Joe Wilson, who shouted "You lie!" at President Barack Obama in the middle of his pivotal speech on health care reform to a joint session of Congress?

Or tennis star Serena Williams's obscene outburst over the weekend at the U.S. Open, in which she told a lineswoman who had ruled against her that she was going to take the ball and "shove it down your fucking throat." Or rapper Kanye West, who burst onto the stage Sunday night during the MTV Video Music Awards and hijacked the acceptance speech of country singer Taylor Swift, shouting that it was Beyoncé instead who had made "the best music video ever." (Beyoncé was clearly appalled and invited the young singer back to the stage to retrieve her "moment.") This rudeness epidemic has grabbed headlines everywhere and sparked an instant frenzy of online comment and analysis. There was even an interesting mash-up video posted of Mr. Obama speaking but being interrupted by Kanye West instead of Mr. Wilson.



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But the reactions to these incidents have been revelatory: Along with the hand-wringing, more than a few huzzahs. In Joe Wilson's case, the South Carolina Republican, who seems like a pretty dim bulb to begin with, apologized the next day to the White House but added that top Republican officials had asked him to do so.

(That's like a kid who reluctantly mutters he's sorry after his mother makes him.) The bigger news is that since his outburst, he has apparently raised more than $1-million (U.S.) from supporters who thought he had the right idea. Suddenly there are "You lie" bumper stickers, and a guy who couldn't have made the evening news with any legitimate political comment is now a right-wing hero.

The apologies of both Mr. Wilson and Serena Williams were self-serving to say the least. Both said their emotions had got the better of them and Ms. Williams, who lost her match and was fined $10,500 (U.S.), added it showed her "passion" for the game. Baloney. It showed she is an entitled brat who even if the lineswoman's foot fault call was wrong, hasn't an ounce of self-control or sportsmanship in her. (Male tennis stars have been exhibiting this behaviour for years but Williams has now achieved gender parity in court rage.) Some of her fans though, thought that the lineswoman's call was incendiary to begin with, which made her behaviour, what - all right?

There has been an apology from Kanye West on his blog. But there was speculation his outburst had been planned to promote a coming appearance on Jay Leno's new show. Which not only doesn't excuse it, but makes it worse - rudeness as part of self-promotion? Throw the jerk out.

You can't help going into analysis overdrive about this run on rudeness. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd added racial anguish to the mix by suggesting that Mr. Wilson's outburst came about because he "clearly did not like being lectured and even rebuked by the brainy black president presiding over the majestic chamber." The White House tamped that suggestion down in a subsequent press conference.

And Washington Post commentator Dana Milbank agonized that Mr. Wilson's outburst was "another low for the nation's rapidly deteriorating discourse."

Well, Americans shouldn't feel too ashamed. As I've said before, this rudeness and anger is endemic in Canada too, fuelled by the immediacy of the Internet - which is not always a bad thing, I might add. The Internet and the opportunity it provides for everyone and anyone to boldly disseminate their opinions might promote rudeness but it also nurtures democracy and connectedness in a way that Marshall McLuhan never dreamed of when he coined the phrase "global village."

We need to somehow make civility sexy again in this global village. To revere devastating wit that is so far above a yelled slur or a maniacal self-promoting outburst, that people of all ages will aspire to be regarded as purveyors of bons mots or rapier-like political insights instead of just headline-hogging idiocy.

But how can we do this? Toronto business etiquette expert Louise Fox of etiquetteladies.com told me, that it begins by "looking in the mirror and asking yourself 'is my behaviour beyond reproach? Am I interrupting others, or butting in line?' "

Of course in this anything goes climate, looking in the mirror may not be the best place to start, lest we suddenly start channelling Robert De Niro: "You talkin' to me?"

Maybe that's where it all started.

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