When my wife and I got married, we set some ground rules. The most important one was that we would speak to each other civilly. Tone is everything. It carries more weight than our words. After 36 years, we’re still striving to stay civil but sometimes that edge creeps into our voice. However, based on my observations, a lot of people are not even trying.
The dictionary defines civility as polite, reasonable and respectful behavior. Stephen L. Carter defines it this way: “Civility is the sum of many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.” Sacrifices? Didn’t those go out with legwarmers? John A. Hall wrote a whole book on the subject. He said civility is, “Tolerance and respect for different points of view.” Sounds archaic, doesn’t it?
A recent poll said that 94% of Americans believe lack of civility is a growing problem. Various causes are cited. Talk radio shows, for example, are coarsening the public discourse. Opposing voices shout over each other. They don’t just disagree, they also have to put people down.
Another disturbing sign is people holding inappropriate conversations in public. I was in a restaurant with a loud-talking friend who insisted on sharing details of his colonoscopy. Despite my attempts to cut him off, he kept going — until the man in the next booth complained, “We’re trying to eat here.”
Here’s another: treating clerks and servers like minions. I hear customers barking demands at the counter, without a whiff of civility. Some clerks can be equally rude, talking to their co-workers, while waiting on customers. When I’m handing someone money, I want their full attention.
“Using technology in public,” was an example given by Elwood D. Watson. Some people insist on yapping on their phone, no matter where they are. It could be a crowded subway car, or some other confined space and we are prisoners to their inane conversations. I was getting an oil change, when a high-volume woman drove me out of the shop. Her main topic was that the person on the other end should turn down their TV.
The most dangerous example of using devices in public occurs when people text and drive. During a long, slow, slog down the expressway, I made an informal survey of my fellow drivers and saw many glancing down at their phones. They’re risking their lives — and mine — to stay “connected.”
We hear foul language from fellow citizens. We listen to obscene lyrics blasted from car stereos, a direct violation of our noise ordinance. All of this behavior stems from selfishness and lack of respect for others. Please, thank you, the golden rule — they’re gone.
Our political leaders aren’t helping. They’re setting a terrible example. Opponents don’t just have differing viewpoints, they tear each other apart. They equate civility with being politically correct. They see politeness as showing weakness. This has its consequences as we learned last week at the Republican Convention. Don’t disparage a candidate’s family and expect to win their endorsement. As we know, Forest Park politics can also get downright disrespectful.
This problem can only be solved individually. We can set the example. We can, very carefully, call out others on their rude behavior. We can also train the next generation. When I hear my 5-year-old grandson, Troy, say “Yes, please” and “No, thank you,” it gives me hope for the future. His parents say that civility doesn’t come naturally. It requires constant enforcement, until it becomes second nature.
By the way, if you made it this far, “Thanks.”