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An endangered species?

Created date

July 26th, 2011

On the floor of the U.S. Senate in 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney told Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy to go **** [himself]. In February 2011 during her best supporting actress speech, a nervous Melissa Leo uttered the first f-word in Oscar history on live television. When I watched Kate [Winslet] two years ago, she confessed, it looked so much ****ing easier. One month later and again on live television, Vice President Joe Biden congratulated President Obama on passing his health care overhaul not with a Job well done, but instead with This is a big ****ing deal. Every year it seems that public figures with itchy trigger fingers drop more and more f-bombs an extension of what experts have identified as a spiraling decline in civility.

Social informality

The phenomenon has left many wondering what s happening to people. According to P.M. Forni, cofounder of Johns Hopkins University s Civility Project, the root of the problem is social informality. What s happening is we re living in a society that s increasingly informal, he states. Now, informality is not necessarily the same as incivility, but taken to extremes it becomes incivility. We are less concerned with what other people think of our words and actions. Quite simply, we don t care as much as we once did about the social approval of our behavior. And surveys have statistically backed Forni s observations. For instance, a 2002 report from the nonprofit research group Public Agenda found that a staggering 73% of those polled agreed that people used to treat others with more respect and courtesy than they have in recent years. Similarly, 69% of the respondents in a 2005 survey by the Associated Press said that people are ruder today than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Another poll by ABC News probed the types of bad behavior that people see most often. Using foul language and rude and disrespectful behavior were among the top five. The problem is we re so self-centered as a culture that we re not concerned about how our behavior affects those around us, says Forni, who is the author of the bestsellerChoosing Civility(St. Martin s Griffin, 2002) andThe Civility Solution(St. Martin s Griffin, 2008). This holds true in all aspects of daily life; even the halls of government, where uncivil behavior has created the image not of informed discussion but self-interested bickering. Cassandra Dahnke, cofounder of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Institute for Civility in Government, couldn t agree more. She defines civility as claiming and caring for one s own identity, needs, and beliefs without infringing on someone else s in the process. Still, the problem as she sees it is that few people in the public forum pay such courtesies to one another.

When it collapsed

The collapse of civility as the primary norm started around the early 1990s, Dahnke explains. I ve been doing work on the Hill for more than 20 years, and there was a day when members could politely disagree. They knew one another, and their families knew one another. There were no illusions about a lack of politics, but there were behavioral boundaries that you didn t cross. Those boundaries seem to have vanished. Indeed, Dahnke argues that today s policymakers generally lack the social skill set that makes these boundaries possible. Civility, she says, is hard work. It requires patience and restraint virtues that are difficult to uphold in the throes of political passion. Dahnke urges that policymakers focus on issues instead of attacking their opponents in order to counteract this natural impulse. Civil behavior doesn t mean giving in to the other side, but rather engaging in healthy public debate free of hurtful and vindictive motives. There is a tendency to view the past with rose-colored glasses; yet I don t think that s what we re doing here, she remarks. Politics in this country have always been contentious and passionate. Nonetheless, I think some social norms have fallen by the wayside, which is true of society as a whole. We focus too much on the individual good when we should be focusing on the common good, she adds. We immediately take everything personally as a result. It takes a lot of effort and courage to step away from the position of, What can I do for myself at this moment? and look at the broader picture. The question then remains will we ever be able to do this? Forni, for one, believes we will with one caveat. I think things will get worse before they get better, he says. Over the years, we ve locked ourselves inside a cage of narcissism, and if we don t break out of it civility will be difficult to achieve. Civility expert P.M. Forni s 25 rules of considerate conduct 1. Pay attention 2. Acknowledge others 3. Think the best 4. Listen 5. Be inclusive 6. Speak kindly 7. Don t speak ill 8. Accept and give praise 9. Respect even a subtle no 10. Respect others opinions 11. Mind your body 12. Be agreeable 13. Keep it down (and rediscover silence) 14. Respect other people s time 15. Respect other people s space 16. Apologize earnestly 17. Assert yourself 18. Avoid personal questions 19. Care for your guests 20. Be a considerate guest 21. Think twice before asking for favors 22. Refrain from idle complaints 23. Accept and give constructive criticism 24. Respect the environment and be gentle to animals 25. Don t shift responsibility and blame Source: P.M. Forni, Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct (St. Martin s Griffin, 2002).