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A Measure Of Civility

Caustic Commenters, Rude Fans: Why We Still Need to Be Told to Make Nice

A long history of unruly fan behavior led the NFL to issue a code of conduct last month. Above, in a 2001 game between Jacksonville and Cleveland, fans threw thousands of bottles on the field in response to a last-minute overturned call that helped Jacksonville win.
A long history of unruly fan behavior led the NFL to issue a code of conduct last month. Above, in a 2001 game between Jacksonville and Cleveland, fans threw thousands of bottles on the field in response to a last-minute overturned call that helped Jacksonville win. (By Scott Heckel -- Repository (Canton, Ohio) Via Associated Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 21, 2008; Page N01

This afternoon, football fans will be ejected from stadiums across the United States for doing things we expect them to do: acting drunk, verbally harassing the other team and its fans, pouring beer over someone's head and calling him a "self-righteous Belichickian."

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The National Football League released an official code of conduct for spectators last month. With it, the NFL seems to say, "Let's keep this civilized, you animals." Sip your beer, the NFL urges, but don't guzzle it. Cheer for your team, but don't curse. Instead of getting pulled into the rowdiness in a nearby row, send a text message to stadium security. They'll swoop in and defuse the situation, and you can remain anonymous.

Civility, historically celebrated in lofty axioms by noble peoples, has evolved over the past decade into a full-on movement of the masses. It's being trumpeted and incorporated by universities and private associations, by entire municipalities, by Internet users yearning for an online code of conduct and, yes, by a professional sports league that seems to exist solely to sell beer to adrenaline-pumped hotheads.

Tracts on manners have been written for hundreds of years. During his childhood schooling, George Washington, for example, transcribed the 16th-century "Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation," which includes this quaint maxim:

Put not off your Cloths in the presence of Others, nor go out your Chamber half Drest. Curiously, the NFL omitted that rule from its code.

The point is, we're no longer focused on how to formally address royalty (protocol) or which fork to use first (etiquette). Now we're simply lobbing official reminders at one another to keep things cool. We've evolved into a highly technical, accomplished, more egalitarian society over several millennia, but we still need encouragement to be kind and decent and deferential. Let's look at Metro's rules and manners, listed on its Web site and on train and bus placards:

Put trash in trash bins.

Refrain from rowdiness or horseplay.

Be courteous.

Apparently we need to be reminded of these things. Does that mean we are any less civil today than in the past?

It's always risky to compare eras, cautions P.M. Forni, founder of the Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University and author of "The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude." In certain ways we are more civil. In other ways, especially when it comes to traditional forms of deference, we are losing ground.

"An example I use often is that of a pregnant woman on a bus," Forni says. "Maybe there are fewer youngsters that give their seat on the bus to the pregnant woman today than there were generations ago. But when that woman steps into her workplace today, the number of men who consider her a professional and intellectual peer is higher than in my father's generation."


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