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Civil Obedience: Local Book Inspires Seminars, Classes

By Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 22, 2008

There are 40,000 "Choose Civility" magnets around Howard County -- and more on the way. Some adorn cars; others sit on office desks as reminders. And "Please Drive Gently" bumper stickers have started to appear on the vehicles of some Montgomery County drivers.

Believe it or not, some people are trying to make the world a little nicer.

"People are longing for civility," said Valerie Gross, executive director of the Howard County Library.

That is the longing that overwhelmed Johns Hopkins University professor Pier Massimo Forni, who got this quiet civility movement started.

He remembers the moment clearly, although it was more than a decade ago. He was giving a lecture on "The Divine Comedy" at the Baltimore campus. He looked out over the earnest faces of young people in his class.

"I would like very much that they know everything about Dante," he thought. But more urgently, "I wanted them to be kind human beings.

"At the time I did not know it would change my life," Forni said, "but it did."

And, although such things are hard to quantify, his epiphany appears to be changing other lives as well.

Six years ago, Forni published "Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct." The book has sold 100,000 copies and has become the focus of seminars and reading groups in Howard and Montgomery counties, as well as communities across the country.

The Howard library's 2,000 copies of "Choosing Civility" are growing dog-eared with use. Dozens of the county's civic, business and philanthropic partners have joined the library in supporting an ongoing schedule of related events. On May 14, a "Choose Civility Symposium" will feature former Baltimore Colts defensive lineman and author Joe Ehrmann discussing the importance of empathy.

Some Howard schools have made civility part of their curriculum. At Hammond High School in Columbia, teachers met over the summer to read and discuss "Choosing Civility" and are using some of the 25 rules as topics for classroom discussions. The book seemed like a good way to follow up a year-long series of talks aimed at understanding and preventing bullying, guidance counselor Jane Mooney said.

"It's a natural progression," she said. "Our goal here is to set a civil climate in the schools."

Montgomery's nascent civility movement includes talks, the latest dealing with civility in the political arena. Efforts are underway to get civility lessons into county classrooms.

"We knew that Howard County had a program, and it sounded like such a good idea," said Esther Newman, founder and executive director of Leadership Montgomery, a nonprofit civic organization spearheading the effort.

Forni's message has been honed by research into ethics and manners through the ages and experiences gained with colleagues who helped him found the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, a forum for academic discussions and outreach projects to inner-city school students and prisoners.

His rules, which fit on a bookmark, make civility seem attainable. They are short: "pay attention, speak kindly, respect others' opinions." Yet in a world rife with traffic jams and jangling ring tones that easily irritate, they require heightened awareness and cultivated discipline to achieve. Even so, Gross believes they respond to an intense need, a craving for gentleness and kindness in a harsh world.

"I keep the magnet on my desk," said Clarky Davis, a spokeswoman for Ascend One, a holding company that provides financial services to consumers in debt. "If you are dealing with a challenging customer, it's good to have it there. It helps you refocus."

After a Baltimore student beat up her art teacher this month, some Hammond students focused on the dynamics of the incident as part of their most recent civility discussion. "Acts of violence are often the result of an exchange of acts of rudeness that spiral out of control," Forni has said.

Although people are born with an inclination toward civility, Forni believes, they also need teachers. His teacher was his mother, Sheba Lolly. "My mother was a loving and somewhat serious educator who had only one child and wanted to make sure that he would have plenty of love, short of spoiling," he said.

He said he never dreamed his musings on civility would gain such a following. These days, he sits at his cluttered university desk, answering e-mail from all over the world, from people pondering the timeless quandaries of civil behavior.

"I try to answer everybody," he said. "I try to give them a little of what they are looking for."

He sometimes fails to be civil, he graciously admits. "I remain a flawed messenger bearing a good message."

But since that moment more than a decade ago, his life has never been the same, he said. "I think of myself as someone who gradually stumbled upon a truth greater than the truth he had believed before."

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