Norman Rockwell “Golden Rule” 1961

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.”

  • Jack

25 thoughts on “Civility

  1. Thank you, Jack. It is impossible for me to imagine any topic that is more needed today in our lives! Whether talking with family members, neighbors, co-workers or others, we have the opportunity to practice civil conversation. Even talking to like-minded people, I try to make sure my language is not disparaging toward those we oppose, but it’s a challenge to come up with the right language. The old mantra was never more applicable, “Let it begin with me.”

      1. Thank you. Our preliminary local discussion will be September 7. I will send you comments and questions arising from that discussion and from the 5 resource essays we’re using. So far about 25-30 have registered. 😀

  2. Jack, Your writing is always thought provoking and inspirational. Reading your stuff is like takin a mental shower at days end. You always challenge your readers to think differently about contentious topics with a clarion call for “civility” and adult discourse. Mounting a strat plan against rhetorical bomb throwing, in today’s environment, is like tilting at windmills. IMO transforming or modifying ideologies of those left/right are impervious to their beliefs. They hide behind the veneer of politeness and have already crossed the Rubicon with a NIMBY mindset before the exchange of ideas starts. All of this reminds me of Synods & Middle Age RC mentality. All present at the table are hoping for a happy ending that fits their narrative. Near term: there is no resolution; just goes round and round with friendly shots fired across the bow(s) of all coalitions. jb

  3. Yes, Dr. Jack, joy extends but hate impales, elements of polarity that are so often extreme that the unity of the pole is sometimes forgotten. Social media at our fingertips, and the barrage of “breaking news” reflect the extremes as much as they reinforce them, in sensational ways. Moderation of input and verbal output is “in order,” for the sake of sanity and staving off the nihilism of absurdity. You have spurred a few thoughts about words and the Word, about obeying, and about tears for our society.

    The absurdly unbridled output of words of hatred and exclusion are perhaps the most immoderate mode of impalement, as in your driving example. It happens every day around our beltway and neighborhood roads too. And yet it is The Word that is dear to my ideal, though dusty in my dealings, in complaining, in ranting behind the wheel. Early in Deuteronomy (8:3), Yahweh describes the Word as food for the people who live not by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth. Jesus restates this thought in one of the temptations in the wilderness (Matthew 4:4). The Word of God is food for the starving. Who is not hungry for a kind word, or a smile shown behind a COVID mask? These words of Jesus to His disciples supply the food, “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12; also John 13:34–35).

    As for obedience and the struggle to dwell rightly, thrice Jesus asked Peter, in different ways, “Do you love me?” (John 21:15–17), after His resurrection, and after Peter himself thrice denied knowing Jesus. As an old man, in 1 Peter 1:22, Peter writes “…by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.” To me, this kind of obedience refers to an ascesis, to the self discipline of observing, judging and acting (your phrase), not to zombies blind and deaf and devoid of perspectival thinking, absurdly following absurd orders. It is the antidote to what Hannah Arendt said, “Niemand hat das recht zu gehorchen,” Obeying is nobody’s right. Nope, to follow the Word is a gift, a grace, a turning of will toward the center, an inherently and authentically human action, accomodated by “l’action de grace.”

    The middle way, the perfectly equalized precious center that is only fleeting, gets squeezed, pressured and imperiled at times, but it is on the pole, though not a static point of dwelling. Camus called it “la mesure,” in his Mediterranean way: an uncomfortable, dramatic struggle to protest, repel, and rebel against absurdity, and for moderation. Jung called it “enantiodromia,” I think, where energy dwells longer at the extremes before obeying the return to the center. It is the dynamic of moving along a continuum, a pole, for the sake of finding balance after stretching. As a musician I have watched this carefully in the discipline of practicing with an original mechanical Metronome of Maelzel, with its elastic swing that always preserves and obeys the pulse: an implied “rubato.”

    The same implication of accommodation, of dwelling but briefly, I think, lies with the phrase “Live in fragments no longer. Only connect…” E. M. Forster wrote it, spoken by his character Margaret Schlegel in “Howard’s End.” Though now I am retired from “church music ministry,” I find resonance with Zephyr Teachout, speaking about acting. She points out a triple connection, which I think is implicate at the heart of Christianity, if only for the first few minutes. To paraphrase her remark: the textual study and ingestion of the words of Jesus require (1) that I embody it within myself, (2) present my embodiment to everyone with whom I live, move and have my being, and (3) align myself humbly and honestly with everyone else in history who has embodied and worked that Word. This is a way of connecting with love.

    Albert Schweitzer referred to his work in his jungle clinic as a “bit of practical eschatology.” He somehow never forsook his faith in the spirit of humanity to extract good from the maw of the absurd. Is that not also our task, the handle of the plow in our hands? It is a matter of obedience, of discipline to carry out the command of Jesus: Follow thou Me, if with rubato. The lesson from rubato in music is that changes of the heart, or changes of national policy, do not turn on a dime.

    As for tears, whether of joy or of sorrow, we have “seen” or sensed the tears of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus at Bethany, of Him weeping over Jerusalem, and Peter weeping after his triple betrayal, and probably also the tears of Judas. Christianism has partly altered our perspective of Nature and our place within it and love of it, but I do not find the words and tears of Jesus and of those who obey his command to love at variance with the plenitude of Nature, though tears and sorrow are surely implicated in the absurd extremes in which we dwell, and for which repentance and reversal come due. For the last word, I could apply lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30:
    “And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
    …Which I new pay as if not paid before.
    But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
    All losses are restored and sorrows end.”

    Thank you, Dr. Jack, for riding along with me in my rubato, at a moderate pace.

  4. Jack – I could respond with a litany of buts, except that is not going to improve the situation. What I need from you is some common language that would be useful to initiate a civil conversation with someone with whom I might be in opposition. I’d like you to provide me with something that begins, “John, I’d______

    1. Well I guess I would do something like this:

      Dear John
      Dear Good Friend

      Yes we have differing perspectives but I hope that you respect me as a good friend. I do respect you. One way or another we do have to work together for the common good. Otherwise the house falls part on you as well as on me.

      So here are my thoughts and concerns…..

  5. Dear Jack,

    You may remember Fr. William Fitzgerald, a dear pastor at St. Philip in Battle Creek. I had the privilege of being one of his caregivers in his last days. He was blessed with Irish wit and an impeccable ability to offer wisdom and priceless insights in startling and simple words. In his last year, I was sitting with him in his living room and semi-confessing. Someone had annoyed me with a terrible offense such as being too slow ahead of me in traffic or wearing a ridiculous tee shirt or disagreeing with me about some issue. I was somewhat ashamed but more likely seeking validation that I was in the right. Without missing a beat and in the softest, kindest voice he said, “Yeah, I know. I met Jesus today, too.”

    His words explode in my brain when I see a Trump flag or watch videos of the January 6 Capitol riot or a friend complains about too many taxes on the wealthy. Your words and Fr. Fitz’s are Spirit inspired and remind me that despite my self assurance that I KNOW what is right, others who are different are just as loved by God as I am. My poor wife frequently reminds me, “He can’t hear you but I can!” when I fuss and fume about some “horrible” offense I observe. You and Fr. Fitz are my personal angels who speak truth and love.

    You have reminded us so beautifully that we may not be able to change “THE world” but we can have an impact on “OUR world” by the way we live, speak, and act. Each day I pray the words of St. Francis: “Lord, make me a means of your peace.” I try to see the face of Jesus each and every day.

    Thank you, Jack, for your Voice.

    Peace,
    Frank

    1. Frank, thanks for the reminder of our wonderful friend, Fr. Fitz. When I returned
      to Michigan after Louvain as an “ex-seminarian” he was very kind and helpful. And Frank, thank YOU for your ongoing friendship and support.
      Jack

  6. If I look around me, I can surprisingly see more civility around me than 20 years ago, if I speak about unknown, unrelated people. It may be result of my aging, or of vanishing spirit of communism (finished 1989). But among friends and relatives, it is increasingly difficult to be polite to people who stick to ideas that I consider “misinformation” – who praise Putin’s Russia, speak against vaccination or tell my sick mother that all doctors are cheaters. And conversely, it is difficult for them to cope with my progressive attitudes. The burden is mutual.

  7. Thanks for your insightful words Dr Jack. I wonder whether social media can partly be held responsible for this increase in incivility. It’s so much easier to be uncivil these days through the anonymity of social media, particularly to strangers. This makes rudeness become a
    habit, even when dealing with non-strangers. Having said that, of course “social media” isn’t to blame; it’s we the people who make the rude comments, not social media.

  8. Your article suggests that the pro abortion people do not have to look at the issue in all of its complexity, only the pro life people. I agree with you that bishops should examine. But I don’t agree with your implied suggestion that the pro abortion people don’t have to do the same

  9. I have been engaged in an ongoing debate with a retired priest friend about abortion. I cannot understand why in the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) it is held to be inherently evil, so evil that it becomes the major, sometimes the sole focus of many peoples’ religious thinking and lives. This gives it too much power, IMO. It may be a sin, but the worst there is? I doubt it.I cannot see any evidence that either Jesus or any other figure in the bible insisted that murder (if abortion is considered such) is a greater wrong than theft, bearing false witness, adultery…
    In my lifetime, thankfully, Catholics have moved on from the position that a woman must give her husband his ‘marital rights’ no matter what. However, it is still the official position that she must not be allowed to use contraception to protect herself from a pregnancy that would be dangerous to her health, or the health and safety of her existing family. Nor can a woman who cannot carry a pregnancy to term protect herself from repeated miscarriages with their attendant health effects, including mental health. And this ‘advice’ is from a bunch of celibate men, who have no skin in this fight, and are kept by money collected from these same people. Kept men with no one but themselves to provide for, who keep asking for yet more money. What credibility can the Church have here? I see none!
    This same church has enabled and sheltered sexual predators in its ranks, yet insists that the natural results of such behaviour (ie sex) must also be protected. I wonder how many of the sexually active priests made sure that there was no resultant offspring, or insisted on/ arranged for abortions if it did happen?
    I have not read or heard that any of these abusers have been ex-communicated, but people who have called for the ordination of women have been, and I have heard calls that people who have /procure abortions should also be excommunicated. Why then should not abusers whose victims commit suicide not be kicked out? a death resulting from sexual activity (suicide) should equal any other death resulting from sexual activity (abortion) should it not? But no, obviously elevating women to the priesthood is really the ultimate evil, not abortion, not sexual abuse. And these men expect me to listen to their proclamations….
    BTW I am still, just, a practising Catholic. I am also the survivor of priestly sexual abuse. I know whereof I speak

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