The Demise of Civility
We live in a mean world. Can any single day go by without some incident on the highway, on the street, or some other trusted venue, coming to haunt us with unexpected tension? Let’s forget about those times when someone changes three lanes in a matter of seconds, in order to make that important left turn at the light. Let’s focus on the countless times that we are innocently minding our own business and, out of nowhere, some bozo decides that it is your time to be the recipient of his wrath. And for what reason? Who knows?
Putting this on a national scale, being mean has been the ticket to success for many in a major political party. Out of an early field of seventeen candidates, only one remains. Slowly, but quite expectedly, the other sixteen dropped out after being bullied and labeled with all sorts of crazy nicknames.
Beyond the presidential campaign, the mean streak of America comes in many forms. Over a million people signed a petition stating that they would boycott Target Stores, due to the corporate decision allowing transgender persons to use the restroom of their choice. People have been going to Target stores and walking the aisles, shouting warnings of calamity and trips to hell. Anyone who actually reads the newspaper would know that the threat to children comes not from transgender persons lurking in restroom stalls, but from the guy next door, the Senator or Congressman next door, the sandwich spokesperson next door, or the pastor next door.
I experienced some lack of civility recently while serving as a delegate to the Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church on the Delmarva Peninsula, I presented a resolution which sought to develop study materials on LGBT issues, intentionally including both perspectives, pro and con. Following the vote in which the resolution was defeated, I walked the halls of the assembly only to overhear a conversation between several of those opposed to any study or discussion of LGBT issues. One person said, “They have been pounding on this issue every year!” Another replied, “They are not going to cram anything down my throat!” The lack of civility seems to linger in the halls of church conferences.
In Choosing Civility, a book by P.M. Forni, the author outlines steps that we all can take to bring civility into the world and treat one another with basic respect. A few of these steps are common sense actions that we can all take. For instance, Forni outlines “Listen, pay attention, be inclusive, speak kindly, and be agreeable” as some of those steps to civility. But Forni digs a little deeper with other steps, including “Respect other people’s space, apologize earnestly, refrain from idle complaints, and accept and give constructive criticism.”
These steps are all good direction for us, but who leads it? Who teaches it? Who directs it? Who makes it happen? It is up to each of us to take it upon ourselves to live it, believe it, and enact it. The lack of civility will be curtailed when people with honorable intentions live it.
This is a quote from Zygmunt Bauman, author of Liquid Modernity, which reflects what civility is supposed to be: “The main point about civility is...the ability to interact with strangers without holding their strangeness against them and without pressing them to surrender it or to renounce some or all the traits that have made them strangers in the first place.”
Now, the lack of civility is nothing new. This has been taking place for a number of years. When President Barack Obama was giving his State of the Union address in 2009, South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson shouted out, “You lie!” This was unheard of in the halls of Congress, to shout out to a standing President that he was a liar! But as we now know, this simply set the tone for the (non)working relationship between Congress and this President.
To some extent, the lack of civility is the result of the technological world in which we live. We communicate via text, tweet, Facebook, and Instagram. Rather than calling someone, we take the road more traveled and get our messages across via a less personal avenue. We do not see how our words affect others. What would happen if we all took the time to have more personal, face-to-face conversations? Imagine!
So where does this leave us here in Rehoboth Beach? (Or Alexandria, VA, Bethedsa, MD, West Chester, PA, or Newark, DE.) It leaves us with the heavy responsibility to be civil in the face of lack of civility. We are called to exhibit and live the best in ourselves when we are confronted with the worst in others. This is no time for evening the score. This is no time for giving what we get. When others are at their worst, we must be at our best.
You have no doubt heard the story of the starfish on the beach. Scores of starfish washed up on the beach, and there was a young boy throwing them back out to the ocean. An older man came by and remarked how the young boy could not possibly get them all back in the ocean. The man asked the boy what difference he thought he could possibly make with all the ones remaining on the shore. The boy looked at the older man and said, “I may not save them all, but I can save this one,” as he cast another one into the water.
Let’s pledge ourselves to cast civility about in our encounters with others. Surprise others with goodness! Smile instead of glaring. Yield when we have the right of way. (And I mean this metaphorically as much as literally.) Let’s not contribute to the demise of civility. Let us be the cause of its revival!