Stu Bykofsky: How can we, why must we, deal with savages among us?

Posted: July 15, 2010

LAST WEEKEND I was at a conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and on Sunday afternoon one of them asked me about the "riot that closed South Street." I knew nothing about it, but later learned that whatever it was - maybe a flash mob - it wasn't a riot. There were "minor injuries" and 15 arrests. Just Saturday night fun?

No one was killed or seriously hurt this time. People have been hospitalized by previous flash mobs.

Philadelphia has a colonial tradition of peace and brotherly love, but that's our mythic history. Our current reality is that we are assaulted by savages.

I don't mean serious crime, at least not that alone. We'll always have crime. In every society - no matter how rich, no matter how poor - there are always spoilers who want more and think nothing of taking it without working. Their rapaciousness is balanced by good people who quietly do more than their share.

When I say savages, what do I mean? Behavior falling somewhere between felony and "Jersey Shore."

Like the mob mentality that grips some Philadelphians. There was the South Street "event" last weekend, following the post-fireworks July Fourth beatdown of a few random people in the shadow of City Hall, and the spring flash-mob rampage on South Street.

Anti-social behavior stems "from the collective mindset of the community, neighborhood, family or social groups," psychotherapist Pamela Garber told me, and it is not owned by any race or income level.

When I lived in South Philly, savages uprooted newly planted saplings in the oasis of Marconi Park, smashed beer bottles on every walkway, shot out park lights and wrecked a tot lot within a week of its opening.

In Center City, plant boxes added to windows for beauty and grace are smashed or stolen.

Old-timers in neighborhoods from Eastwick to Port Richmond to Mayfair to Nicetown remember how neighbors used to scrub their front steps and sweep their sidewalks. Now, savages litter the city, slash car tires, abuse animals, bully other kids and destroy public property for fun.

The mounting incivility spreads disgust among wage-earners and taxpayers, aka the middle class. Our shoddy schools drive out the parents who are not raising their children as savages.

After they leave, there's a heavier tax burden, fewer services and more fees imposed on the nonsavage wage-earners and taxpayers who remain. It's no wonder that so many are in a nasty mood.

What creates the urban, anti-social savage? The easy - and correct - answer is bad parenting, but there's more to it than that because many people survive bad parenting to become good people.

"One factor involved is a sort of disinhibition that I seem to discern in our culture," says Temple University psychologist Frank Farley. "What I mean is a weakening of impulse control that we're more willing to express ourselves, less willing to inhibit that expression in a wide range of contexts."

One such context is driving. Farley reminded me of an Allstate Insurance report last year that rated Philadelphians as the nation's worst drivers. Reckless driving is a lack of impulse control.

In our culture, growing numbers express emotion, positive and negative, and fall victim to "social facilitation," which is ugly mass behavior associated with sporting events, Farley said.

From snowball- and battery-throwing to projectile vomiting to running onto the field, Philly has seen that.

I don't have the whole solution. All I can suggest is being a good role model yourself and - gently - urging others to be a little more civil.

We may not be able to correct the savages, but we do outnumber them.

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