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Geoff Johnson: Infamous charter flight to Mexico sign of declining interest in civility

The signs of a move away from the simple civility that was once a hallmark of being Canadian are on show everywhere these days.
The story of passengers ­partying maskless aboard a chartered Sunwing ­Airlines flight from Montreal to Mexico reflects a troubling ­sociological shift, Geoff ­Johnson writes. Graham Hughes, CP

Youthful passengers who filmed themselves drinking, smoking, vaping and generally ­partying maskless aboard a chartered ­Sunwing Airlines flight from Montreal to Mexico recently came close to becoming travel exiles.

The group of 27 had to take four different flights to find a way home after two airlines announced they would not fly them home to Canada.

There’s more to the story of course, including $5,000 fines pending a Transport Canada investigation, but it’s still a story that reflects some troubling sociological shifts in a thankfully small slice of Canadian youth culture.

Sunwing offered to bring the ­feckless group back, subject to some ­restrictions — no alcohol would be on board, and ­passengers had to remain belted in seats and obey the instructions of the guards Sunwing had found it essential to have on board.

Many within the group declined to agree to any of this because Sunwing did not offer to feed them on the five-hour return flight.

Sadly, the Sunwing situation seems to be an inevitable consequence of what Neil Nevitte described in his 1996 book The Decline of Deference.

Nevitte is a professor in the political science department at the University of Toronto. In his remarkably prescient book, he describes the sociological changes that, since the 1980s, have brought about the “rules are for other people” personal ­philosophy in a variety of situations.

The charter-flight partygoers apparently saw no reason to defer to inflight rules. They declined any deference to the ­authority of the flight captain or other Sunwing ­employees, declined deference to widely accepted medical advice and even declined to defer to that last bastion of personal ­survival — common sense.

Nevitte, in 1996, expressed the view that since the 1980s, at least some Canadians were experiencing a cultural sea change in a variety of circumstances where generally accepted civility and social responsibility are set aside in favour of individual interests and self-identified “rights” and “freedoms.”

The signs of a move away from the simple civility that was once a hallmark of being Canadian are on show everywhere these days. My doctor’s office, my bank, ­grocery stores, restaurants and even our local ­recycling depot now all post signs ­indicating that offensive language and ­vulgar ­behaviour will not be tolerated and will result in the offender being banned.

Not to sound like the old fogey I ­probably am, but none of this is good news as our kids grow up in a culture where, at one time, these warnings would not have been ­necessary.

It is too easy to attribute an ­observable decline in civility to the exponentially expanding influence of social media, where customary social cues are often absent. Some participants apparently do not choose to be impeded by any filters on what they say.

Online communities are often awash with uncivil behaviour that may become a kind of practice model for disrespectful interaction offline and in person.

And that’s only half the story.

In his 2017 book The Death of ­Expertise, Tom Nichols, a writer and Harvard ­professor of international affairs, ­identifies the internet, and the explosion of other media options, for the anti-expertise and anti-intellectual sentiment that he sees as being on the rise.

“These are dangerous times,” writes ­Nichols. “Never have so many people had access to so much knowledge, and yet been so resistant to learning anything.”

Restoring some level of acceptance of the importance of civilized behaviour in a world blighted by popular skepticism at so many levels is now, or should be, a significant ­element of 21st-century education.

It won’t be an easy sell.

Kids from late elementary grades on up through senior high school experience daily exposure to mainstream media and constantly observe examples of antisocial behaviour from adults who should know ­better.

From celebrity athletes who openly decline to defer to rules that apply to ­everybody else to the belligerent refusal by some elected officials to defer to accepted legislated procedures to the well-­publicized financial shenanigans of corporate ­fraudsters, it is difficult for kids to avoid cynicism about “those above.”

That cynicism washes over to the people whose job it is to impose common-sense restrictions designed to ensure our safety and survival.

Resistance to common civility and the subsequent decline of deference to any kind of authority may be a consequence of this loss of confidence in a world that can’t be trusted.

And that’s a challenge for anybody ­working with kids in their formative years.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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