Thinking about a local experience last week, some thoughts about the decline of civility in our contemporary human environment.
It was early morning. I was driving to pick up a couple things from our neighborhood grocery store. Two cars ahead of me I saw a young woman with a baby carriage suddenly start crossing the street. The car in front of me stopped quickly as did I. The fellow behind me started honking and honking and blinking his lights. Then he aggressively drove around me, gave me the finger, and called me an old SOB. Speeding ahead he drove around the young woman and almost collided with her baby carriage. He gave her the finger and called her a “stupid bitch.”
The loss of civility, of course, goes far beyond irritating road rage and giving someone the finger. But it is based on a personal attitude that says: “I can do what I want and you can just shut up.” Already back in 2013, the Powell Tate bipartisan public affairs firm, in Washington DC, warned that “civility in America continues to disintegrate and rude behavior is becoming the ‘new normal.’”
Today in 2022 we have abundant examples of ever declining civility. Airline passengers, as I saw on my recent flight from Chicago to Brussels, are assaulting flight attendants, who simply ask passengers to observe airplane regulations. Parents are threatening teachers, who teach important history like the Holocaust and want their students to read The Diary of Anne Frank. Customers are haranguing store clerks or fellow shoppers. And of course we see a lack of civility in political discourse and campaign rallies. Yes Donald Trump flamboyantly transgressed norms of civility, but declining civility is a bigger issue than the behavior of a former president.
On Facebook, You Tube, Twitter, and cellphone messages one finds rudeness, denigrating remarks, and a lack of civility from “conservatives” as well as “liberals.” Being negative is often much more infectious than being positive. And, and in social media, anger travels faster than joy.
I often think a lack of civility contaminates the entire highly-polarized political spectrum. But it happens in religious and ethical situations as well. A good example is the reaction to the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court. Many U.S. Americans, it seems, have retreated to their respective corners of “pro-life” or “pro-choice” and are bludgeoning the other side with outrageous and often uncivil accusations. I wrote a Catholic bishop acquaintance after the Supreme Court decision and suggested that instead of another episcopal condemnation of abortion we really need an intelligent discussion about all biological and ethical aspects of abortion. He sent back a quick note: “You really are an old leftist heretic. Good Catholics don’t question. They shut up and obey!” Well this is not going to get us to a place where we can work together on an issue as sensitive as abortion. I find it not just unfortunate but irresponsible that church leadership is unwilling to examine the abortion issue in all if it’s biological and ethical complexity. And being “pro-life” has very broad implications.
What were once episodes of ugly verbal abuse are now evolving into a nasty plague. Civility is being replaced by adolescent-type bullying and public denigration of anyone who challenges and questions the other. Incivility takes form in rude and discourteous actions, in gossiping, in spreading rumors, or simply in refusing to assist another person.
Civility means much more than simple politeness. Civility is about interpersonal respect and seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences. It is about moving beyond preconceptions and listening to the other and encouraging others to do the same.
Civility is hard work because it means staying present to people with whom one can have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. I have a number friends on the far- right religiously and politically. I don’t shun them and I ask them not to shun me. Civility means collaborating for the common good. It is about negotiating interpersonal conversations in such a way that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s voice is ignored. Not always easy. Civility means that despite different personal perspectives we still have a larger shared vision and we must collaborate to make it a reality.
When civility is replaced by mockery, dishonest accusations, and abusive slogans, people become monsters. History demonstrates amply that monsters create more monsters. History also reminds us that such a scenario never has a happy ending.
The reflection this week is brief. But the task awaiting us is a long process. Civility begins with you and me, with family and friends, with neighbors and colleagues. We gradually construct what I like to call coalitions of transformation: communities of faith, hope, and support.
In her 1964 book, Continuities in Cultural Evolution, the famous cultural anthropologist, Margaret Meade (1901 – 1978), said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”