Where, oh where, has civility gone?

Surf through the channels on your television set.  It doesn’t matter if you have cable, satellite or just the basic channels.  Somewhere in the mix you find people behaving very, very badly.  People shouting at one another, trading putdowns, bragging, flaunting huge houses and tank-sized luxury automobiles–and these are the “reality” shows, not the dramas and comedies.

The news channels offer the same wide assortment of  truthiness.   One news pundit shouts at the audience or another pundit or they all shout at each other.  They threaten, predict or promise chaos.  They have the CORRECT viewpoint and everyone else is wrong.  This is the media–not a religious channel.  We can have the same experience on the radio as well, with shouts, insults and threats assaulting our psyches twenty-four hours a day.

Then there is the audience. We can pick sides!  We are either PRO or CON, and those who don’t are OUT.  I’m an “outie”, but we are not talking about belly buttons here.

I was raised in a mid-20th century middle-class Protestant household.  We went to a moderately liberal church every Sunday.   Girls wore dresses to worship and public school.  We were taught to be courteous to adults and to listen and think before we spoke.  My parents encouraged us to speak our minds, but only one person spoke at a time.  We learned about other religions–how we were alike, how we were different.

I was a baby boomer, but not a hippie.  I was idealistic, but also realistic.  From my childhood on I witnessed race riots, protests, assassinations and wars on my TV screen and in the newspapers.  I watched a president resign.  I know the world is not perfect.  I even remember the HUAC hearings on the flickering black and white screen of our very first television.  My parents were nervous–not because they were worried about being called to testify.  They were worried about the threat it posed to freedom of expression.

As an adult, I have accepted the responsibility to both raise and teach the next generation.  I taught my children and my students to respect other people’s ideas, to accept those who are different, to speak with “inside voices,” to listen and learn, to follow the Golden Rule, to cooperate, collaborate and settle disagreements peacefully around the table.  A good winner shook hands with the loser, a good loser congratulated the winner.

As a parent and teacher, I celebrated our nation’s history and ideals.  My children and students learned about the founding fathers, the constitution and civil rights.  It was also important to me that children understood the ways in which we were linked to the world–ecological connections as well as international policy connections.  If there is an earthquake in Haiti, how are we linked to that tragedy?  We are all part of the worldwide web of life.

I can accept change, whether I adopt all of it or not.  I love the internet and the cellphone, hundreds of TV channels, Kindles and Nooks, streaming videos, You Tube, social networking–the world is growing smaller by leaps and bounds. I celebrate choice and convenience.

What I cannot accept is xenophobia–the fear and hatred of people from other countries.  I cannot accept jingoistic patriots–aggressive or warlike foreign policy.  How can we survive in a smaller world if we cannot see things from the another point of view and find a comfortable middle?  When did civil discourse become weakness?

The extreme polarization of our country and our world is threatening the survival of civilization.  That is the outcome of disregarding civility.

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4 thoughts on “Where, oh where, has civility gone?

  1. Mary, I had been wondering if I ought to email you . I didn’t want to give you anything to depress you, so I didn’t write. Forgive me.The goings on which have been going on recently have been dreadful. Saddening. Frightening.
    Your sentiments are mine exactly.
    And yes, Xenophobia is dreadful, and it matters not who practises it. We are all brothers and sisters, we may eat differently or pray differently but to hate someone because they don’t do it ‘your’ way is madness. No matter who you are, which country you live in, no matter which religion you practice or don’t. Live & let live is my motto, and IF you disagree with someone, then just agree to disagree! Yelling non stop at them is hardly going to change their mind.
    Enough said?

  2. The events from last Saturday here in Arizona are really heart-breaking.
    I keep thinking how much we have evolved (over the last few centuries)
    and then something like this happens, and I wonder if we’ve evolved at all.
    What has happened to our humanity? What has happened to all the
    principles that this country was founded on? I’ve always thought how lucky
    I was to be born in America – home of the free, whether religious, racial or
    political beliefs. We were safe here. What changed? Very sad.

  3. What I find so disturbing about the volume of the rhetoric is that it discourages people from participating in democracy because they have mistaken the shouting on TV and the radio to somehow be the democratic process. As I walked by our state capitol today heading to an advocacy meeting focused on poverty reduction, I was saddened to see a level of security I have never before witnessed. I love participating in our democratic system and cherished the fact that I could walk into the capitol easily and track down any legislator with whom I wanted to talk. Just a couple of months ago, I called an out of state US Senators office on an action item I needed in order to benefit his constituents. Not only did I get a quick call back, they were able to dislodge a months long delay for me at a federal agency.

    It is those types of moments that cause me to marvel at our representative democracy. I love the level of accessibility. Having contact with the lawmakers is a great way to influence change and I abhor the fact that events like that over the weekend threaten to take away our connection to those responsible for the rule and policy making in our country.

  4. My question is: How is today’s atmosphere different, or the same, as the late 60s – or even during the Red Scare days? Is the rhetoric more inflamatory, or is it that anyone can become a pundit from their living room? It seems to me that there was more civility about how things were said, but that the anger and use of fear tactics is no different.

    What can we learn from previous times of upheaval and incivility to help us through this?

    “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
    Martin Luther King, Jr.

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