Can civility be saved?
This has become the question du jour among scholars, journalists and others who fret about such things at dozens of programs popping up around the country. As a nation, we seem to want to be a more civil society, which is laudable if, quite possibly, unlikely.
Inevitably, discussions about the current state of civility begin with disclaimers and acknowledgement that Americans have always been a bunch of rowdies and rascals. Previous eras have made current incivility look like a (real) tea party that erupts into a food fight of crumpets and scones.
A perennial favorite was the caning administered by South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks upon the person of Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner over a disagreement about slavery and a question of honor. And, of course, there was that little episode known as the Civil War.
Are we less civil today than in the past? Not really, though thanks to the pervasiveness of media, it seems that way. And, thanks to the general coarsening of the culture amid the breakdown of traditional institutions, not to mention families, rules of decorum have suffered.
Even the imperative to improve the tone of our interactions is a constant through history. Sometime around age 16, George Washington transcribed a slim volume called “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation,” which covered everything from when and how to spit to how to speak in public. The 58th rule reads:
“Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy, for ’tis a Sign of a Tractable and Commendable Nature: And in all Causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern.”
Ahem, yes, well, tell that to a certain member of Congress from South Carolina. We should all write Joe “You lie!” Wilson a thank-you note for creating a contemporary standard by which to judge public expressions of incivility. We might also stamp a letter to the congresswoman from California, Maxine Waters, who recently described House Republican leaders as “demons.”
Like so many things, civility is in the perception of the beholder, but we at least can agree on a definition. Civility is courtesy in behavior and speech, otherwise known as manners. In the context of the public square, civility is manners for democracy.
Unquestionably, our manners have deteriorated since Washington’s time, increasingly so in recent years. Manners have become quaint, while behaviors once associated with rougher segments of society have become mainstream.
During my own childhood, even private cursing was rare, and the third finger was something only the crudest people used to express themselves. No one I knew ever dropped the F-bomb. The worst children heard was an occasional “hell” or “damn,” usually following an incident involving a badly aimed hammer.
Given that manners have faded in our interpersonal relations, it shouldn’t be surprising that bad habits would bleed into the public square. Add to the equation our social media, Internet access and other avenues of instant and, importantly, anonymous, communication, and the bad habits of the few become the social pathology of the many. As we further balkanize ourselves, finding comfort in virtual salons of ideological conformity, it becomes easier to dehumanize “the other” and treat them accordingly.
Whom to blame and how to fix it? It is tempting to blame “the media,” especially television, for the degradation of civility. Obviously the food-fight formula that attracts viewers to cable TV isn’t helpful, but we may protest too much. We can always change the channel, but people arguing passionately are more entertaining than solemn folks speaking in measured tones about Very Important Issues. Conflict and spectacle sell (see WWE and its distant ancestor, the Colosseum). The attraction is tied to our sporting spirit and the lure of the contest.
The clearest solution would be unacceptable to most of us. That is, the tamping down of speech. Better that incivility be revealed in the light of day than that it be forced underground, there to fester and the underlying sentiments to grow. Change — if we really want it — has to come from within, each according to his own conscience.
The most that media can do, meanwhile, is strive to be honest, accurate and fair, and reward the coarsest among us with scant attention. The greatest threat to civility isn’t the random “You lie!” outburst. More threatening to our firmament is the pandering to ignorance, the elevation of nonsense and the distribution of false information.
In the main, the Golden Rule works pretty well. Best taught in the home, it could use some burnishing.