It’s not only Donald Trump, although he may be its’ poster boy. This political season, nastier than any I can remember in a very long time (ever, perhaps), has legitimized a trend long brewing.
It is acceptable now, to be intolerant. To be uncivil.
In becoming less tolerant, we have lost a piece of ourselves. Taunting those who look, think or act differently is universally recognized as a symptom of a bully. Someone we might feel sorry for, but someone whose words and deeds have the power to wound. Having allowed it in our schools and in our homes, we are now witnessing the effects of a larger, more institutionalized acceptance of it.
With this instutionalization comes a striking loss of our humanity. Instead of moving forward as a civilization, we are moving backwards. We need look no further than the increase in school and public place shootings, and the corresponding lack of outrage. They simply fail, except to those involved, to stun anymore. We are sad at an occurrence, but we are no longer stunned.
Similarly, criminal acts by our business leaders or governmental officials fail to garner outrage. I’m not, for one moment, suggesting individuals aren’t outraged, or that these acts don’t deserve our outrage. I am suggesting, that collectively, we are weary of being outraged; exhausted at the sheer volume of acts that warrant outrage.
Weary, because these have come to be anticipated, accepted and tolerated. Our humanity is fraying, as is our civility. No longer can we expect civil discourse, instead, we have become inured to the modern-day dialogue: a shouting match that does little to inform and much to polarize.
16th Century Jesuit Priests compiled a list of 110 rules on civility. George Washington copied these rules and spent his life living them. What makes these rules noteworthy is not each rule specifically (and, to be sure, some feel wildly outdated), but a general understanding that civility and decent behavior are shaped from the outside in: that is, character is molded by shaping behavior.
Washington practiced these rules, understanding that focusing on others and not self interest, would result in making small sacrifices for the sake of living in a community and getting along well with others.
Reportedly, Emily Post, the original goddess of propriety observed, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter which fork you use.”
Dr. P.M. Forni, professor at Johns Hopkins University, co-founded the Johns Hopkins Civility Project in 1997. He directs what is now known as The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins, and has spent years studying, writing and lecturing about the connectedness between civility, ethics and quality of life.
Some years ago, in preparation for a seminar I was writing, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Forni. In reaching out for permission to use some aspect of his work, we had a couple of delightful conversations about his 2002 book, ‘Choosing Civility’ which is an excellent read and guidebook. I remember then, as now, feeling inspired to practice and speak out on civility.
What has made America great over the years is our ingenuity, our hard work, our civil discourse and our diversity of cultures. We live in the biggest melting pot in the world and each of us brings something unique and worthy of acceptance to the table.
I am certain, that somewhere between math and popular culture, there is a place to teach civility. In our schools and in our workplaces, to regain our humanity, ethics and quality of life; this is a subject we need to speak about and to model.
Won’t you commit, as a business leader, teacher, co-worker or parent to help restore a quality of life that seems to be slipping away? We already teach remedial math, English and business practices in many companies. New hires routinely encounter training to inculcate them in the new culture. We offer diversity training so we can appreciate different cultures. In an environment where the average person spends more time at work than anywhere else, why not offer information on conduct and civility?
We need to restore respect in our workplaces, in our schools and in our homes. Perched on the precipice, we are close to losing civility and humanity; each time we turn on TV or social media, we are assaulted with their demise.
I realize this is a bit outside the lines, but so is much we are witness to, it seems. It can’t hurt, can it?