Ding Ding Ding! Survey says – America might have a civility deficit. Duh. It appears rudeness, and incivility have become as contagious as the annoying common cold — and just as hard to cure. Aggressive language, insults, demeaning words flow like waterfalls from mouths of people from political leadership to the neighbor down the road. What could go wrong?!
We live in a hurry up world. From road rage on the morning commute to high decibel restaurant cell phone conversations, behaving badly has become a hallmark of a ‘new’ world. Self-absorbed communication and demands for instant gratification strain common courtesies to the breaking point. They say a fish rots from the head and this political climate brought a nasty stench. The rhetoric of this past election had no small part in the ever-growing, no-holds barred incivility. But, to be truthful, we all have a part in what has grown with abandon. And, as a Senator, who recently stated that we have ‘normalized’ bad behavior, said, “Enough!”.
Rudeness is the weak person’s imitation of strength. Eric Hoffer
How did we get here? Do we have heftier passions than our ancestors? I doubt it. (Does Henry the VIII or the Inquisition ring a bell?) 2,000 years before us, there was still a heck of a lot of bad behavior. Is there more political division now? Monarchy or democracy, there have always been political divides but social media and TV ‘s in-your-face communication reaches audiences of previously unimagined proportions. Fake news, alternative facts, and blatant untruths roll by without impunity and nonchalant arrogance that do little to make us proud.
By definition, (Merriam Webster to be exact) civility is “polite, reasonable and respectful behavior”. It’s all about upholding your own identity without degrading someone else’s. Uh huh. Basically, civility is about people playing nice. It’s a fundamental understanding and respect for society’s laws, rules, and norms that allows it to function, not slide toward chaos. Well, if you could say or do anything you wanted, whenever and however you wanted, regardless of consequences, voila – total crazy.
Only once, I was on the edge of incivility. David Rockefeller
Really, David? Once? I think we’re all a little guilty at one time or another. Sure our Facebook timelines are dotted with pictures of cute puppies and grandkids, but can you really say you’ve never shown less than your best side? (Be honest, now) We can readily list things that assault our senses and sensibilities but things can get weird when we ourselves land in weak moments. Lines get blurred on what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Does getting really pissed at an Optimum rep when they ‘accidentally’ cut off all my service during a snowstorm count? Um, yup. Have I gotten annoyed (#$%X&*) when someone cuts me off on the parkway, nearly sending me in another lane or car? Guilty as charged. (luckily, however, no one hears me from within the interior of my blueberry on wheels) My allergy to needless stress and useless arguments, especially after the last traumatic two years, curbs my enthusiasm for things that go nowhere but my guilt list.
Civility costs nothing and buys everything. Mary Wortley Montagu
I think of my grandkids, especially the little ones, and their tender vulnerability and openness. NOTHING escapes a kid! (Ever see how happy a family swear jar makes them?) What you say, what their teachers, leaders they are taught to respect and yes, their friends with big ears at home say – it’s all a piece of the whole. Add the televised coronary inducing political rants that diminish and belittle the handicapped, women, other cultures, even mere differences in opinion and they absorb them all like sponges. The trickle down will be the legacy of our next generation
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
Those lyrics from the musical ‘South Pacific’ will always be timely reminders of the power of our words. Though my parents didn’t always follow their admonition that “if you can’t say something nice – don’t say anything at all”, it embedded itself in my head. These days, though, it seems a lot of us never got that memo. Being kind, being considerate, thinking before you speak never go out of style. In fact, zipping it rather than letting something hurtful fly is still the best rule of thumb.
“We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions – forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.”
George W. Bush Spirit of Liberty Event
I wonder, sometimes, if incivility, as it’s played out online, on TV, on the highway, the cubicle or the grocery store, is the price we pay for freedom of speech. Yet, that priceless right we hold self-evident of what sets our country apart. Even so, there are lines that can be drawn in the sand. If conspiracy theories are flung with abandon despite the cost, if insults are attack arrows at those different than us, if hate groups can yell epithets totally opposite of every founding value – what does that precious First Amendment freedom really mean?
Our new normal is often an awkward, graceless one. This last political hurricane razed all the norms in its path, changed the narrative and not for the better. But it also hit a nerve, one that both ignited unbuttoned incivility and social awareness of wanting better.
While incivility shuts the door on any possibility of working together, of achieving something tangible, of making real progress, it can also wake us up from complacency. We can try harder to draw people in, not push them away in; talk with and not at each other and broaden bridges instead of boarding them up.
I have no answers. I can’t control the world. Hell, I can barely control my hair. But I can be more conscious of checks and balances in my little universe. We can all try to remember that everyone is trying to exist on this planet just as we are. Unlike hemlines, politeness, and respect never goes out of fashion. We can agree to disagree. We can think before we talk. We can have respectful exchanges of ideas. We can argue, even passionately, with respect. If that seems impossible, exit — gracefully. Meanness is never acceptable. There’s a Zen koan (a bit tongue in cheek) that asks “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you, too?” That would be a no.
In the end, it comes down to the most fundamental tenet – treat others as we want to be treated.