“Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?” ―
Bad behavior in the public square has become a crisis. Drive-by shootings, bully-induced suicides, and road rage are manifestations of a widespread breakdown in civility between people. Violent crime, especially of indiscriminate mass execution type shootings, is becoming almost commonplace.
Civility is a noun that essentially means showing respect for another person’s words, actions, beliefs, and demeanor. We all have many images of civil behavior. Perhaps the most common historic view of civility is that of Sir Walter Raleigh removing his cloak and spreading it over a puddle to prevent a companion’s foot from getting wet. We have been told that in yesteryear civility was commonplace in our Congress, with flowery language, and wide sweeping gestures showing respect for the opinions of others. The children of that era were seen and not heard.
That has changed. Today there is the contrary image of the video screen full of people shouting at each other, trying hard to keep the other persons from being heard. Often facial expressions can be more uncivil and disruptive than a shouting match. The ultimate classic was perhaps the Vice-Presidential “debate” of 2012 when the Vice President was on camera full of grimaces and a set of disdainful facial contortions punctuating the statements of his opponent. Another favorite trick is to talk down to another party, belittling their words with sarcasm or technical jargon.
The rapid spread of technology has intensified the breakdown of empathy for others. It has also left in its wake millions feeling inadequate, illiterate in their minds, trying to cope with the tsunami of change. It was Albert Einstein who stated some fifty years ago “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” This is even truer in the Cyber Age in which we now find ourselves.
So how does one cope with the breakdown of civil behavior in our streets, in our Congress, and in our Board rooms. How do we train children to be civil when so many stars in athletics, entertainment, and business are uncivil boors, trampling over the rules of decent behavior, often with impunity. “In your face” confrontation seems to be the norm of the day. Do we follow the path of least resistance, and follow the “leader”. Who can we hold up as a hero to our children, as examples for them to emulate? Who do we hope to be ourselves?
Think again! Maybe it is not as bad as it seems. A recent Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice stated “I don’t believe in confrontation. That seems to me outside civil discourse and we all have to find way to be civil to one another.” That’s the key. We have to find a way.
It was William Penn who pointed to the path many years ago when he stated: “I know no religion that destroys courtesy, civility, and kindness.”
It seems that the breakdown of civility has coincided with the rise of secularism. The religious mandates to “love God above all else”, to “love your neighbor as yourself”, and to “turn the other cheek” are all forgotten as we love ourselves above all else, seek to excoriate our neighbor, and attack at all times. Being miserable is not easy. It takes too much energy. It’s easy to be nice. We should all try it. It doesn’t hurt. It might even be catching. There is a famous Spanish fable of the dour disfigured man who donned the mask of a happy-go-lucky youth. Years later when he died, the mask was removed and lo and behold his disfigurement was gone, and his face had become that of the mask.
Remember that song of our youth. “Put on a happy face.” Do it.