Southern Views

All of civility depends on being able to contain the rage of individuals.” – Joshua Lederberg

Compromise, Reason and Civility are family valuesAnd how those individuals rage these days. They hurl accusations, taunts, threats and self-righteous assertions. They feed their opinions into the gullets of a willing populace and the media laps up the rank dribble. They storm about, damning those whose opinions may differ from theirs. They “rail against the machine” (which “machine” depends upon the day, the time and the speaker’s position).

And in this age of technology, they quickly take to the vast and unfettered realm of cyberspace. There they often hide behind a cloak of anonymity; lies, rumors, smear-campaigns… all spewed out into the world with little thought to either truth or consequences.

From the international stage to national forums and down to the small theaters of local affairs, people appear to be becoming increasingly intolerant of opposing views and all too ready to fire at will.

It seems to be the case that, with increasing frequency, the very people who defend “free speech” most vehemently are those who then defile that scared concept by using the spoken or written word to pummel “the opposition” into silence. With an American flag in one hand, the Constitution in the other and, quite often, a Bible clenched between their teeth, they hunch over their keyboards or microphones and use any means available to decimate open debate.

According to Professor Steven Carter (Yale Law School) “Civility is the total of all the sacrifices we make for others, the sacrifices we make for the sake of living in community with others. Those sacrifices are important, because we rub up against each other all the time, all day long. We cannot live simply as individuals who seek our own desires and self-indulgence.”

Let’s consider one small case in point: a town in America where many of the citizens grew concerned about the activities of their City Council. One would have thought that it would be considered admirable for people to speak up, ask questions, seek answers and become proactive in affairs that affect the well-being of their community. One would have thought.

Enter the clamoring and enraged throng. The online community forums went wild with menacing, obscene and ignorant comments; strange websites intentionally promulgate lies and patently ridiculous rumors spread like toxic weeds; individuals are attacked, livelihoods threatened, families affected and a town divided. (Oddly, those who most vociferously damn the people who sought answers through the appropriate channels and maintained their decorum call them “anti-American.” Their “logic” escapes me).

94% of all Americans consider the general tone and level of civility in the country today to be a problem.” The study further finds that “the tone of incivility is causing Americans to tune out from the most fundamental elements of our society – government and politics, news coverage and reporting, and opinion pieces and editorials in newspapers and magazines.” – From the Weber Shandwick study, “Civility in America”.

Herein awaits, perhaps, the greatest danger: the “tuning out.” If the tenor of debate becomes so discordant, rabid and off-putting, people will simply close their eyes and ears. They will choose to narrow their fields of vision to that which lies directly before them and will cease participating in “the process.” Already appallingly low voter-turn-out rates will continue to plummet and the tapestry of democracy will unravel. We are witnessing it in the same town mentioned above as citizens become reluctant to volunteer for the boards and committees so necessary for the success of any society. They are unwilling to become the latest victims of cyber-smears and gossip. Incivility is already taking a formidable toll.

There are those who protest this disturbing trend. James Leach, the Chairman of The National Endowment for the Humanities launched a fifty-state American Civility Tour to call attention to the need for civility in public discourse. According to Leach,

Civilization requires civility. Words matter. Polarizing attitudes can jeopardize social cohesion.”

The Dilenschneider Group, a strategic communications firm, is partnering with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs to present a series of lectures about the need for civility. From Robert L. Dilenschneider, president of the Dilenschneider Group.:

“Today, the virtue of civility has been abandoned in the United States. As a result, there is strife throughout America – screaming blogs, political attacks, vicious reader comments, and the inability to work across the legislative aisle without rancor or demeaning acrimony.”

These are but two of the countless efforts to create a new dialog about the importance of civility.

Perhaps some consider it mere cosmetics – the meaningless prettying up of everyday discourse. I consider civility the glue that holds us together and propels us forward as a nation. Diverse opinions serve to expand our knowledge, increase our tolerance and reaffirm our commitment to the ideals embodied by article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This freedom is compromised if we must fear that our words will be met with the thuggish attacks of those who would silence all dissenting voices.

Disagree if you will (as is your right)… but be civil. Perhaps then we can meet in the middle.

Alex Kearns

Alex Kearns

Alex writes for a variety of national and international publications. A relative newcomer to the United States, she co-founded her town's first environmental organization (The St. Marys EarthKeepers, Inc.). In turns bemused, confused, entranced, frustrated and delighted, she enjoys unravelling the eternal enigma that is the Deep South.