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Our Civility Deficit

Americans are worried about their behavior toward one another. Lack of common courtesy is a longstanding U.S. character flaw impossible to eradicate. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep trying.
April 12, 2011 |
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Last week, after the brutal beating of a Giants fan in the Dodgers Stadium parking lot, Los Angeles and San Francisco officials issued a public plea for more "civility and common decency" among sports fans. In January, the shootings in Tucson in which six people were killed and 13 wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, sparked a national conversation on civility in politics. The following month, the University of Arizona established the National Institute for Civil Discourse to advocate greater civility in all corners of the public square.

Americans are clearly worried about their behavior toward one another; polls bear this out. And our obsession with our own uncivil behavior is nothing new. Lack of common courtesy is a longstanding American character flaw impossible to eradicate. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep trying.

Last August, Rasmussen Reports found that 69% of Americans think their countrymen are "becoming more rude and less civilized." A more comprehensive April 2010 poll by Weber Shandwick revealed that 94% of respondents considered the general tone and level of civility in the country to be a problem. Nearly three-quarters of respondents believed that the level of incivility has worsened over the past few years.

Where are we at our worst? In politics and on the highways. In a rare example of graciousness, respondents told pollsters that they blamed the decline in civility on themselves — the public — more than on politicians or the media.

But social historians say we have an excuse. Democratic culture is part of the problem. A society that empowers — almost requires — people to behave as individuals isn't going to find it easy to forge a consensus on manners and etiquette, let alone live by it. In a political culture driven by the rights of individuals, we spend precious little time thinking about the common good, let alone shared mores.

I'll never forget that day in high school government class when the teacher had all the students stand up and put their arms out to each side to illustrate that our rights extended to the tips of our fingers, exactly where our neighbor's rights began. It wasn't exactly a lesson in community, shared norms and social cohesion.

Truth be told, because we reject the class differences and stark social demarcations that characterized older, more hierarchical societies, we lack the cultural infrastructure that encourages "manners."

Elbowing our way to maximum geographic and social mobility is more our style. In 1795, a disillusioned immigrant complained that "civility cannot be purchased from [Americans] on any terms; they seem to think it is incompatible with freedom." Frances Trollope, in 1832, put a finer point on it: "Any man's son may become the equal of any other man's son; and the consciousness of this is certainly a spur to exertion: on the other hand, it is also a spur to that coarse familiarity, untempered by any shadow of respect, which is assumed by the grossest and the lowest in their intercourse with the highest and most refined."

Still, every so often, Americans are seized by what Fordham University cultural critic Mark Caldwell calls "periodic attacks over their manners." Caldwell points to upticks in the sales of etiquette books at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. That today's handwringing coincides with another century mark seems to suggest that we are either nastier to each other or more self-conscious about our behavior at transitional moments in history.

This time, according to Yale law professor Stephen Carter, we may have reached a particularly low point. More and more, Americans are losing a sense of common purpose, and with it, the reason to be polite: "There are no bounds because there are no fellow passengers whose lives or needs or hopes we must respect."

Is civility enough to ask of people? That's the goal we hear about — manners, and the harnessing of emotions and desires for the sake of others. But when we're grappling with campaign ads that superimpose target sights on candidates' heads or the brutish behavior of baseball fans, is that enough?

Pier M. Forni, the founder of the Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University suggests the answer is no. He cites the Henry James standard. Only three things in life are important, James said: "The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind."

On the 10 during rush hour? Fat chance. Let's settle for civility.