These are tumultuous times. There is conflict, division and dislike turning to hate everywhere I turn. It is difficult to explain exactly what is occurring or why it is happening, but my observations and experiences from the past few months have led me to conclude that civility, under the pretense of free speech, is under siege. Put simply, we are experiencing the death of civility.
By the death of civility, I don’t mean the end of mechanical polite remarks at dinner tables, or a “good morning,” “good evening” greeting to people we meet on a daily walk. Though I wish that there too, people would be more agreeable to lifting their heads and nodding or acknowledging a greeting or presence. But that’s not the worst of it. Rather, the death of civility means people care only about themselves while expecting the worst from others. Society has become too informal, and with that, the agreed-upon rules for respectful behavior, which we were taught, are no longer remembered. Shows like “The Apprentice” and “Survivor” highlight backstabbing behavior as admirable and winning qualities. And then there’s the Internet. The Internet has produced an etiquette-free zone where people can post uncivil criticisms with ease. There is stereotyping, dismissing, ridiculing, and contempt with no end to arguing, squabbling, accusing, distrust and outright rudeness, and no responsibility taken except to say “freedom of speech.” These uncivil behaviors are growing rapidly, and too many people either don’t see it or do see it but don’t care.
There was a time, not long ago, when these things were virtually unheard of. Instead of attacking those they disagreed with, the public generally showed respect and even outright concern for one another. Society valued standards, morals, etiquette and politeness. Certain rules existed for speaking and for behavior, which ensured no one was confused or unnecessarily offended, injured, insulted or ridiculed.
Civility is about more than just politeness. It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. Civility cultivates a civic code of decency. It requires us to discipline our impulses for the sake of others. It demands we free ourselves from self-absorption.
I am disheartened when I read or hear rude comments and vile political stances that demean the very essence of our humanity and create a polarizing animosity that deepens division. We need to think about how our actions affect others in the context of how we would wish to be treated in similar situations. This requires looking inside ourselves to understand the difference between valuable debate of ideals and disrespectful adjectives, and then acting in accordance with our beliefs which should be driven by moral virtues.
Unfortunately, our children are also being exposed to rudeness, vulgarity, and vile behavior that would have been unthinkable in previous generations. Children model adult behavior in real life and on screen. The world is their learning environment. They replicate language and behavior. We are their teachers. And as parents, teachers, coaches, politicians, television producers, and others who impact children’s lives, we have a responsibility to foster civility in children so they grow up with less, not more rudeness and ridicule.
Regrettably, I don’t see this changing anytime soon unless we as parents, as leaders, cultivate a civic code of decency. Because as a world turning away from civility, we are in for tougher times ahead. Studies show that incivility leads to violence, unhealthy communities, and societies paralyzed by conflict and political division. It’s not exactly the kind of world we envision for our kids.
I am convinced that the strength and integrity of a nation or a people depends on a strong foundation that begins in our homes. Indeed, “civility represents a long tradition of moral virtues essential to democracy. Virtues like empathy, humility, integrity, honesty, and respect for others are ideals of democratic engagement.” Without civility a society can morph into verbal, accusatory, offensive attacks on one another which is the way things are in these tumultuous times.
Civility can be a wonderful force capable of bonding people and instituting international brotherhood with differences of beliefs. It is that moral glue which prevents the breakup of society. And while we are in the midst of a crisis threatening the sustenance of society, we can rise above our own impulses and restore the civility we were once taught. It begins by practicing a basic concept: Look in the mirror instead of pointing the finger.