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Monday, April 9, 2012

The Uncivil American Civilization

"And it becomes — you can’t fix the problem as long as you’re fixing the blame.
And the thing that I dislike the most about our current American discourse
is people are constantly blaming everybody else.

"I tell my members, you spell blame B-LAME.
And any time a leader blames somebody else,
he or she is being lame.
And we need to get —
we can’t fix the problem until we stop fixing the blame."

-Pastor Rick Warren

I found the recent comments of Pastor Rick Warren, who gave the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration, worthy of consideration. At the inauguration, Warren said, "And as we face these difficult days ahead, may we have a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches and civility in our attitudes, even when we differ."

(Jake Tapper, "Rick Warren: 'Coarsening of Our Culture' Concerns Me, ABC News, April 7 2012)

He was asked just before Easter, "How are we doing? What's the state of the nation spiritually?"

Warren answered, "The coarsening of our culture and the loss of civility in our civilization is one of the things that concerns me most about our nation. We don’t know how to disagree without being disagreeable. The fact is, you can — you can walk hand-in-hand without seeing eye-to-eye. And what we need in our country is unity, not uniformity.

He continued, "There are major differences, politically, religiously, economically in our nation. We have many different streams in our nation. We’re not all going to believe the same, and any politician who acts like we do is really — that’s a nice campaign statement. We have major differences. I don’t think some of those differences are solvable."

Warren believes we can solve something very worthwhile: we treat each other with our differences. He believes since Jesus Christ commanded that we love everyone, we must show respect to everyone, even people with whom we totally disagree. Warren explains, "So I’m coming from that viewpoint in that we must return civility to our civilization in order to get on. But the reason I do that is because of the deeper reason, there’s a spiritual root to my reason for civility."

Civility:  What Is It?

A simple definition of civility is "politeness or courtesy." Simple expressions of civility include manners such as standing to greet someone or letting someone go first through a doorway.

But, the wide range of application for this courteous behavior far exceeds manners. Humans who interact with others in a civil way understand and practice the virtues of restraint, respect, and consideration. Dr. P.M. Forni, Founder of The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, says, "Civility requires a benevolent awareness of others and a willingness to modify one's behavior for others' sake. At the core of civility is not just pleasant form but ethical substance as well."

Civility involves the ability to place limitations on human nature -- according to many, a lost practice that should be restored.
After the January 2011, Tucson, Arizona shooting, New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks wrote, “Civility is a tree with deep roots, and without the roots, it can’t last. So what are those roots? They are failure, sin, weakness and ignorance.”

It seems apparent that civility cannot thrive in an environment of indulgence, narcissism, license, and immodesty. Civility, according to Brooks, is the opposite of self love, and the problem over the past 40 years or so is that “we have gone from a culture that reminds people of their own limitations to a culture that encourages people to think highly of themselves . . . over the past few decades, people have lost a sense of their own sinfulness.” (W. Jason Wallace, "Civility: What Does Civility Mean in the 21st Century Debate?" Alabama Humanities Review, March 31 2011)

The Case of Jane

Merely "reminding people of their own limitations" does not necessarily produce civility. Parents, schools, churches, and other well-meaning individuals and groups often request that people practice common civil behaviors. Do you believe the instruction is producing good results these days?

Just picture a very considerate, well-behaved, quiet individual who practices personal civility and proceeds on the premise that others are going to follow suit and extend that courtesy to her. Let's call her "Jane." She leaves the pleasant confines of her home and enters the real world:

Jane begins to drive to her 2:00 P.M. doctor's appointment across town. Expecting to arrive about ten to fifteen minutes early, she has plenty of time to meet her schedule. On the freeway she turns on her blinker and enters the left lane. The car ahead of Jane, running at five mph under the speed limit, has pulled parallel to a driver in the "slow" lane but doesn't pass, instead choosing to block the passing lane. This continues for five minutes. Jane, slightly agitated but patient to a fault, waits her turn until the driver ahead of her finally passes. As Jane passes both cars, she notices the driver of the obstructing vehicle is busy texting on a cell phone balanced on the steering wheel.

Jane arrives at her doctor's appointment and spies a parking place to her right that is close to the office, but luckily she brakes her car just before she pulls into the space and watches another patient on the lot, entering from the opposite direction, cross in front of her and gun his car into the empty space while displaying a wide grin that seemingly announces, "I beat you, sucker."

Just happy that the other driver didn't slam into her, Jane parks in a spot quite a distance from the office and walks to the waiting room. She enters the waiting room and is shocked to see a full house of patients. Her doctor is often late for his office calls and has the habit of scheduling six people for the same appointment time, so she makes sure to sign in immediately at 1:50 P.M. She grabs the same outdated magazine that she has thumbed through for the last two years from the rack and takes the only available seat, right next to a young man holding a very audible private cell discussion with his girlfriend. Jane tries to ignore the public discourse, but can't escape the conversation. She is not entertained by hearing details of "last night's wonderful date."

Two hours pass and Jane finally finishes her appointment. She would have liked to ask the doctor more about her sinus medications, but she convinces herself this isn't wise because he usually seems to have little time for anything but examination.

Jane drives to the local supermarket to pick up a few items. There, she notices a young parent grab a delighted toddler and take off  buzzing down the aisles in one of the store's motorized carts. She figures the mother, who looks very capable of walking, must be recovering from some recent surgery. "Maybe that's why the young mom is wearing a dirty t-shirt and those pajama jeans," Jane ponders.

Jane quickly finds the six items she needs and heads for the express lane that considerately accommodates shoppers with twelve items or less. She spots a middle-aged man with a cart full of
name-brand groceries dart into the express checkout before her. Jane waits as this customer has his thirty- five items (she purposely counted each one) scanned and bagged before he pays the cashier with food stamps. She places her purchases on the counter, pays for her groceries, listens for a return acknowledgement of "thank you" but hears only silence, and leaves the store.

As she walks to her car, avoiding the approaching wheels of two skateboarders on the sidewalk outside, Jane notices the same "thirty-five item man" pull down a handicapped parking permit from the front mirror of his sports car and head out of the lot.

As she places her bag into her car, she hears the pounding of a bass speaker and loud, booming music coming from the car next to hers. Jane looks to her left and sees a carload of children sitting with a very young-looking teenage girl who is smoking a cigarette. Of course, the windows are rolled up on this cool day. Jane shakes her head in disbelief and slowly pulls out of the lot on her way home, not yet noticing the three-foot-long deep scratch a stray shopping cart has made on her month-old automobile.

Just Let Everyone Act Out Their Independent Desires?

Jane's encounters may seem relatively unimportant compared to large-scale issues. Still, the point is that disregard for the need to act civilly seems to continue growing despite the good efforts of some. As more and more people lack a spiritual element in their lives, a larger majority sees little need for common courtesy and mutual respect. Instead, they desire earthly rewards -- money, possessions, power, and increased control over others. And, to get these things, they will adjust their good character traits to their suiting. I sincerely believe many, many people want to "win" the game of life by "dying with the most toys."

Should a person like Jane continue to remain silent and respectful due to her tremendous civility? In other words, although Jane may represent a much-needed model, will her passive approach help supply the need for a nation that acts more civilly? I don't think so. Part of Jane's civic duty is to become directly involved in movements that foster a return to civility.
Civility cannot mean "roll over and play dead." People need to be able to raise tough questions and present their cases when they feel their vital interests are being threatened. Research reports that a civil society cannot avoid tough but important issues, simply because they are unpleasant to address. (Burgess, Heidi and Guy M. Burgess. "The Meaning of Civility." Beyond Intractability. Eds. 1997)

Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, in partnership with KRC Research, released its first annual Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey in 2011. Here are some interesting findings:

*  For America's Future: Incivility in government is perceived to be harming America’s future, hurting its reputation on the world stage and preventing it from moving forward. Only one-half (49%) of U.S. citizens today believe that America is among the most civil countries in the world.

*  For Politicians and Government: Two-thirds of Americans (67%) say that they have decided against voting for a candidate because he or she acted uncivilly, and nearly three-quarters (72%) have "tuned out" politics or government because of this disturbing trend.

*  For Media: More than half of Americans say they are "tuning out" news coverage/reporting (55%) and opinion pieces/editorials (52%) because of what they consider as uncivil commentary.

*  For Social Media: Online networks fare better than other venues but are still at risk of losing engaged customers and supporters due to uncivil behavior. Because of incivility, nearly half of Americans have defriended or blocked someone online, more than one-third have "tuned out" social networks and YouTube or stopped visiting an online site, and more than one-quarter have dropped out of an online community or forum.

* For the Workplace: In the survey, over four in 10 Americans — 43% — have experienced incivility at work. Almost as many (38%) believe that the workplace is becoming more uncivil and disrespectful than a few years ago. These respondents blame workplace leadership and other employees for the growing incivility problem. In fact, a Workplace Bullying Institute exists to help employees with overbearing bosses.

What Can Be Done By "Little Old Us"?

 A. Attention

Perhaps the most important and also the easiest way to establish civility is to simple pay attention -- to the physical environment, to loved ones, to workmates, to strangers, to government, to the media, to important issues. By attention, I am not talking about noticing something or submissively accepting understandings. You want to allow reality to leave its mark upon your consciousness.
Attention that brings change requires actively seeking deeper, more loving understandings. This kind of attention requires your participation in the public arena. Your "being" must deliver to others the reality that civility makes a positive difference. This attention means that you must ask questions, seek answers, and apply your knowledge to reach attainable goals. 

Dr. P.M. Forni says, "Without attention, no meaningful interaction is possible. Our first responsibility, when we are with others, is to pay attention, to attend to. Etymology tells us that attention has to do with "turning toward," "extending toward," "stretching." Thus attention is a tension connecting us to the world around us. Only after we notice the world can we begin to care for it. Every act of kindness is, first of all, an act of attention. We may see a coworker in need of a word of encouragement, but it is only if we pay attention that we may do something about it. We may hear a child cry, but again, our help is contingent upon our stopping and taking notice." (P.M. Forni, "3 Rules of Civil Behavior," The Oprah Winfrey Show, October 15 2008)

B. Happiness

The theory that everyone on the planet is only a half dozen people away from knowing everyone else was popularized by John Guare's 1993 movie Six Degrees of Separation. Now research by a pair of social scientists might have us think more about "connection."
Using statistical analyses of thousands of subjects, a study in The British Medical Journal has shown that happiness actually spreads from person to person, up to three connections away. "So if your friend's friend's friend becomes happier, it ripples through the network and affects you, even if you don't know that person," says author Nicholas Christakis, MD, a medical sociology professor at Harvard Medical School.

Proximity plays a part: A happy sibling who is a mile away can increase your probability of happiness by up to 14 percent; a nearby friend, by 25 percent; and a next-door neighbor, by 34 percent.

Interestingly, the effect also applies to smoking and obesity, Christakis has shown. "If people around you gain weight, it changes your expectations about what an acceptable body size is," he explains. "Our work strongly suggests that when one person quits smoking, loses weight, or becomes happy, others around her follow suit. I am reluctant to suggest you pick your friends solely on this basis, but one could say that helping a friend do better is a roundabout way of helping yourself." (Tim Jarvis, "How Happiness Is Contagious," O, The Oprah Magazine, May 2009)

 “We are coming to the point in this country
where doing what is right
 is merging with what we need to do
to save our national skins.”

 -Marian Wright Edelman
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