By Dennis Grimski
Originally Published May 8th, 2018
I was on my Twitter account the other day, as I am most days, where I encountered an incident that gave me pause to think. A comment was made to one of my posts that I believed was out-of-bounds. A person reacted with a lot of f-bombs and other colorful language. There was no fact-based retort to why she disagreed, just anger, name calling and belittling my intelligence.
If this was an isolated incident, I probably would have let it slide. But I find there are people when they disagree with my political or Christian views don’t disagree with factual arguments, but resort to name calling, belittlement, and character assignation.
My recent encounters on Twitter got me thinking: “Can Americans no longer disagree with respect and politeness?
I see such negative reactions not just on Twitter, but in Washington politics between both parties, daily. This is happening on talk news TV and radio, and, unfortunately, in my community at stores and other public venues. I can’t tell you the number of times I have witnessed store clerks being treated with rudeness and disrespect. It is in this context that I decided to research and write this article on civility. The key questions I am asking myself are: (1) Is America in decline when it comes to civil behavior; and (2) If yes, what can be done to improve our plight?
I don’t know about you, but I am continually amazed at the depth of rudeness and disrespect among people, especially our youth. Unfortunately, I have come to realize that disrespectful behavior is not only true on social media, but seems to be illustrative of a growing trend in our American culture itself. Overall, I believe Americans are losing their ability to act in a civil manner when they disagree with the behaviors or statements of another person. I have witnessed this theme play out over the past 50 years in politics and Hollywood – where both have used the power of the media to educate millions on how not to behave in public. Unfortunately, the example these two entities have displayed over the past years has not been very positive. In fact, due to Washington and Hollywood, I believe negative and confrontational behaviors have trickled into our society via the work setting, our communities, and most recently into our families and personal relationships.
On Twitter I operate with an alias, which allows me to post comments without tracing them back to my personhood. Yet, because my bio says I am a “Christ-follower,” I try to post positive and uplifting statements that uphold my testimony. This is true, even when I strongly disagree with a person’s remarks. I have about 5,000 followers, and this puts me into contact with a wide array of people. I can honestly say that 95% of the people who follow me are like-minded people who tend to agree with my Christian and political posts. However, about 5% of my followers are liberal (i.e. not the “classical liberalism,” but “social liberalism” in belief). I also get numerous responses from people who do not follow me, but feel compelled to comment on my remarks. My personal experience is that most left-wing individuals, when they disagree with my right-leaning remarks, do so in a vile or uncivil manner. They attack my race, gender or intelligence instead of making a fact-based point that attacks or challenges my statement. It seems they can’t disagree without debasing the person. I am not saying all people on the left are this way, but it does seem like the majority exhibit this kind of behavior. I am equally sure that these same people would say that many people on the “right” treat them in a similar manner; and sadly I have witnessed such responses on both sides of the political aisle.
Unfortunately, we seem to be living in an increasingly uncivil world. From presidential politics, to road rage, to random internet comments, there seems to be more and more rude, demeaning, insulting, and aggressive language and behavior in our society. Such behavior leaves us with the question: “Can we do anything to impact our downward spiral on acting in a civil manner?”
What is Civility?
Before I go much further with this article, I think it’s important to define what I mean by civil behavior.
The Oxford Dictionary defines civility as formal politeness, polite remarks and courtesy in behavior or speech. It is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.”
Civility is about more than just politeness, although politeness is a necessary first step. It is about disagreeing without disrespect; it’s seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences; it’s listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. Civility is the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. And civility begins with us.
“When it becomes more profitable to make fun of someone or berate them for their beliefs than it is to offer a constructive alternative, intellectual discourse is threatened. And, when a people can no longer rely on intellectual discourse, the society is bound to fall.” ― Eric Robert Morse, Juggernaut: Why the System Crushes the Only People Who Can Save It.
Solving the civility problem doesn’t mean we’ll all agree at the end of the day. However, there are several things that we can do to try and understand one another and resolve conflict in our personal lives without resorting to anger and personal beratement.
Talking Past Each Other
Kristen Soltis Anderson, ABC news contributor and pollster, recently pointed to a story from The Washington Post that covered the Trump administration banning seven words from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), including “transgender.” She said it was actually CDC employees, rather than Trump appointees or the Trump administration, who had suggested not using those seven words in the style guide in order to improve their chances of securing funding with conservatives.
The initial story went viral, however, and the follow-ups weren’t as highly publicized. “Make sure we take a step back, we breathe, and we make sure that this story, what’s under the headline is truly worthy of the outrage we give it,” she said. We share things that impassioned us. But we don’t always share things that make us think. Social media is optimized to show us posts that will strike emotion — to make us feel. If we are always outraged, we won’t be able to discern the times when we should be truly outraged or concerned.
Realize that when you consume news these days, we aren’t all seeing the same news. It’s personalized, customized for you. “All too often, it is very easy for us, in a world where we’re consuming content digitally, to just consume a small piece of it and not consume the whole story, and to therefore consume something that is a really twisted version of the what has actually been said,” Soltis Anderson said.
Most Americans Believe Civility is on the Decline
Most Americans believe today’s society is generally more ill-mannered than it was 50 years ago, and that civility in politics is particularly lacking. A survey conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds that 74 percent of Americans think manners and behavior have deteriorated in the United States over the past several decades. A large majority of Americans believe that politicians should be held to a higher standard than the general public, but few think they are living up to that expectation.
The study finds that people are generally in agreement about what sort of behavior is unacceptable. Behavior ranging from use of cell phones in restaurants, to swearing in public or online is universally considered to be ill-mannered, but differences in these opinions, and the likelihood of an individual personally engaging in such behavior, emerge based on age and gender. Remarks or jokes based on race, gender, or sexuality, however, are considered inappropriate by 8 in 10 Americans, and only a small percentage of Americans admit to doing so themselves. “There are clear differences between what older Americans and younger Americans consider to be generally rude behavior,” said Trevor Tompson, Director of The AP-NORC Center. “In areas of technology, particularly, almost half of Americans age 18 to 29 feel it is perfectly acceptable to use cell phones in restaurants, for example, while only 22 percent of those over age 60 agree. This same sort of division is apparent in the use of profanity and even in discussions of sex in public,” Tompson reported. In short, there is an apparent divide between socially acceptable behavior between young and older people.
Key Survey Findings include:
- 74% of Americans think manners and behavior have deteriorated in the United States over the past several decades
- 68% of people see the political campaigns in 2016 ~ at both the State and Federal levels ~ as outdoing the public in levels of rudeness.
- Only 7% say they sometimes or frequently make remarks about someone’s gender or sexuality in public. But 34% admit using profanity in public, especially on social media when they disagree with a person.
- 25% of the American public admits to daily use of the f-word, an increase of 10 points since a similar survey conducted in 2006 by The Associated Press.
- 80% of Americans say political leaders should be held to a higher standard of behavior than other people; yet only 12% believe politicians live up to a higher standard.
- 85% of Americans believe that candidates should be more sensitive to the possibility of upsetting other people while they are campaigning.
My concern with these survey results is that most Americans believe we are on a downward spiral when it comes to civility and how we react to and respond to each other. In his essay “The Best Decade Ever? The 1990s, Obviously,” published in The New York Times in 2015, Kurt Andersen cataloged the many things that his favorite decade had going for it, from a fecund arts scene (Nirvana, Quentin Tarantino, The Sopranos, David Foster Wallace) to high economic growth, to the absence of major wars. He also argued that in the 1990s we got a lot of great new technology, like laptops and the web and search engines, but without going into overkill. “And it was just the right amount of technology,” Andersen wrote. “By the end of the decade we all had cell-phones, but not smart-phones; we were not over-connected or tyrannized by our devices. Social media had not yet made social life both manically nonstop and attenuated.”
I know all the counterarguments in favor of the new order that has emerged with social media. The internet and social media have allowed a broader, more diverse array of voices to be heard. Instead of just a limited number of TV news stations, news journals, or even talk radio providing political commentary, there are now hundreds of web platforms with at least some audience.
But there has been a cost, which is a daily coarsening, an omnipresent exposure to unkindness from which there is no vacation. Looking at the kind of remarks I witness from people who disagree on social media appears to have sentenced all of us to a lifetime of living in junior high school.
“When the healthy pursuit of self-interest and self-realization turns into self-absorption, other people can lose their intrinsic value in our eyes and become mere means to the fulfillment of our needs and desires.” ― P.M. Forni, The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude
The Traditional Way
I will age myself, but I grew up in the 1950s and the early 1960s. Back then there just seemed to be more respect for other people than I witness in the world today.
Many people, especially those under the age of 40, will often hear ‘us oldens’ say: “If I’d have spoken to my parents like that, I’d have been swatted upside the head”. If you gave a child a “swat upside the head” today, you would probably be brought-up in front of Child Protective Services or something similar!
But in most cases it’s true what we say, you would never answer back, you would do as you were told because that’s how it worked. Possibly part of the reason was that for the last 100 years, the vast majority of us were children of those who fought in the military during the two wars and this brought about a discipline. There again, discipline dates back centuries; well before this time.
Many of our historical societal rules can be traced back to our early Colonial times. Our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and the Bible itself was the “rule” of the land when it came to personal living and societal interaction. Furthermore, George Washington composed a set of “rules of civility” for successful and non-confrontational living. Washington had copied 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation., for early America, which were based on a set of ‘rules’ composed by French Jesuits in 1595. Once published, these “rules” became the acceptable standard of living for our new American land.
Yet, let me not go too far back. Instead, let me take you back to the 1950s to illustrate some of the ‘rules’ which existed then, most of which I’m afraid, are long forgotten. These rules are not meant to be formal guidelines for today, but more illustrative of what was common practice across America:
- You would always show respect to your elders, and as a kid you looked to adults to show you what was socially acceptable.
- You would always vacate a Bus or Train seat for a woman or someone in their senior years. You would also offer them your seat if you were in a waiting area for a table at a restaurant.
- You would never leave the table without seeking permission first. In fact, you would usually not even bother asking. Most families would eat together, and they would all leave the table together. Further, actual family discussions occurred around the dinner table, as parents took an active interest in their children’s activities, especially school.
- You would always use the words “Please” and “Thank you” and, unlike today, if you didn’t say it you would immediately be correct by your parents.
- If you wore a hat, you would never wear it indoors, at home, in a church, or in a public building.
- “I want” were two ‘no no’ words. It was always “I would like” or “may I have” (followed by the mandatory Please and Thank you of course).
- You would always open a door for someone, a woman or adult and allow them entry or exit before you.
- If you saw a Lady struggling with her shopping, you would offer to help, even if that meant going out of your way to take them to her home.
Much of the above “rules” would remain for some years to follow, but the main change in ‘youth’ came about in the mid 1960’s. For me, it seemed like it came with the advent of the Beatles (long hair) and the subsequent British Invasion that swept America. At this time, there seemed to be a whole new rebellious attitude that emerged amongst us youth. Youth began protesting against the Vietnam War; and American society began being lied to about the war by our own government. In general, there was a societal breakdown; a general lack of respect for authority. Protests of numerous kinds began to emerge across America (e.g. civil rights, urban riots, women’s rights, women’s lib, minority pay, etc); and with these protests the rebellion went against all forms of authority, including the 1950s societal rules as well.
My larger point, manners and etiquette were just a part of the 1950’s lifestyle. Life was just more disciplined in the 1950s. You wouldn’t see so much rubbish in the street, you would find it hard to find untidy front lawns and gardens, people wanted to show others that they had things sorted, they were leading a decent life, did the right thing, and public manners were one way of showing the world you had it together.
In the 1950s, instead of attacking those they disagreed with, the public generally showed respect and even outright concern for one another. Society valued standards, morals, etiquette and politeness. Certain rules existed for speaking, which ensured no one was confused or unnecessarily offended. There were also many rules for behavior, which made sure everyone’s needs were cared for, and no one was accidentally injured, insulted or excluded.
Today, many, if not all of these rules, are considered outdated. As such, it would be easy to dismiss them. Yet the “rules” had a focus on other people rather than the narrow focus of our own self-interests, and our own high self-centered opinions that we find so prevalent today. Outdated or not, they represent more than just manners. They are the small sacrifices that we should all be willing to make for the good of all and the sake of living together in better harmony. These rules proclaim our respect for others and in turn give us the gift of self-respect and heightened self-esteem.
The Modern Way
While the loss of politeness in modern society is lamentable, the reality is that modern man has “regressed” far beyond simply lacking politeness, etiquette and manners.
One who is uneducated in the finer nuances of etiquette, or is simply under pressure, may sometimes be impolite. But, historically in America such behavior was not acceptable or tolerated by the majority of folks. This fact no longer appears to be the standard or reality in our society today.
Sadly, civility in this century is dying. In many cases, especially with the younger generation (millennials), it is already dead. People across America have forgotten how to show any kind of respect to others—instead, they look out mainly for themselves. Far too many parents are no longer raising their children with “rules,” instead they are allowing an “anything goes attitude,” as long as the kids don’t disturb my TV watching, phone, or social media time. The question thus becomes: “Who is raising our children today, and by what rules?
To illustrate my point of societal breakdown in our world today, let me use a couple of examples. I recently read of a youth who went into a McDonalds and was given the wrong order. He went into a verbal tirade against the employees and manager, and then proceeded to thrash the restaurant for $1,700 in damages. All over a wrong food order. In the end he was arrested and charged. But is this type of behavior personal control, and showing concern for others?
In an example closer to home, this past fall, my wife (Judy) and I were traveling through New England on a mini-vacation. During our travels, we ate at an upscale restaurant in Cooperstown, NY (home of the baseball “Hall of Fame”). At the table next to ours was a man who was eating with his wife. The man did all the talking (loudly), while disturbing most of the restaurant patrons. During the meal, his wife sat there silently absorbing his pearls of wisdom. At the end of their meal the waiter brought the man his bill. Upon reading it, the man immediately broke into a loud tirade yelling at the waiter at a “jet turbine level” that “he was being charged for an item that he did not order.” The waiter apologetically stated he would correct the bill, but the man would have nothing to do with it. He verbally assaulted the waiter, and then stood-up so the whole restaurant could clearly hear his anger. Next, the manager came over and stated his apologies. Then the owner came over too. But again the man would have nothing to do with it. He became so upset verbally and physically thrashing about, that he had to be escorted out by security. To me, this man had a public melt-down that was not only embarrassing for his wife, but was illustrative of our larger society. In public today, we believe it is 100% acceptable to act with self-centered rudeness, no matter the cost to the other person.
When people care only about themselves, there is no end to the arguing, accusing, distrust and outright rudeness beyond anything people would have once ever thought. Consider your own life. How often do you encounter people on the road that cut you off, or exit at the last minute on the highway rather than wait in the exit line; or telemarketers who won’t listen and talk incessantly over your voice? Again, how often does such behavior lead to frustration, arguments, stress, and anger between people? In short, far too many Americans no longer aspire to act decently.
“Aspire to decency. Practice civility toward one another. Admire and emulate ethical behavior wherever you find it. Apply a rigid standard of morality to your lives; and if, periodically, you fail as you surely will adjust your lives, not the standards.” ― Ted Koppel
So, What is the Best Way?
I have been a Christian since the early 1980s. The Bible has become my guide book for living. First, I want to admit that I am by no means perfect. I am a flawed man and fall short many times on God’s standards on how I should live, including displaying civility. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to apologize for my behavior. Yet, I strive to improve and grow. The Bible for me is an important pathway to improved personal living, but also improved societal living.
No discussion about behavior would be complete without considering the single greatest guide ever written about human behavior—the Bible. While it covers many subjects, a huge portion of this “Instruction Book” for mankind is devoted to explaining right societal conduct.
“In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
“Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
“Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.”
“Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.”
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,
These verses clearly show instruction for each of us. The main theme of these passages is to show respect to fellow human beings. In fact, it says we should respect them more than ourselves! Does that sound strange? Obviously not to God!
For those who think it does not make sense to be kind to others, God offers additional explanation.
“The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious; but the lips of a fool will swallow up himself”
“A soft answer turns away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger”
These last two verses speak directly to the subject of knowing the right things to say. They explain that politeness produces politeness. If you employ gracious speech, you will help build an environment of peace. Your correct or incorrect use of words can either save you from great difficulty, or cause you no end of troubles.
Do these principles of conduct seem outdated or even a little naïve? For some, you may say yes. But I guarantee if you followed God’s standards for “right living,” it would make a difference in your family, your community, and in your life.
It wasn’t too many years back that these Biblical standards where the centerpiece of our American life. The question for us today is, “what must America do to regain some modicum of appropriate behavior amongst its masses?” For me, turning to the Bible is always the best solution.
So, Dennis, what would it take to make to improve our “civility” within all levels of our society?
I believe that such a change would have to start with parents re-merging as leaders of their family, whether you were a two-person or a single-parent family. In order for this to occur, it would mean many parents would need to put down their own tablet/phone and get involved in their children’s lives, and begin to teach them respect, and to hold them accountable to some higher standard of living.
Next, it would also require leaders of government and business to lead by exhibiting the example of right conduct and character. It would require establishing rules of etiquette in governance and business practice, and then following those rules.
In short, this utopian transformation would require a top-to-bottom transformation of all man’s systems of government, religion, business, education and family life. At the core of societal transformation is the family unit itself. Ideally, all systems would follow God’s laws on human interaction, but, if not, at least some standard of expected societal interaction must be deployed. Right now, we live in an “anything goes” society, and, frankly, it’s not working!
Regardless if you are religious or not, I believe if we are to change our society, it has to start with each of us. We each have to take responsibility on how we react to, respond to, and treat others. I hope this article has stimulated some thinking on how you can improve your own personal behaviors in this regard.
“Whether in business or in life, you can be civil and still get ahead. Whatever your age or circumstance, you can master civility. So what are you doing today to connect with others? What kind of legacy are you leaving? Are you lifting people up or holding them down? In each moment we get to choose who we want to be. Who do you want to be?” ― Christine Porath, Mastering Civility.
Civility Improvement Tips
As I close this article, here are some helpful tips to consider as you try to improve your level of civility with the world with whom you interact.
Forms of Civil Behavior that should be embraced:
- Think before speaking. Does that thought really need to be said? Does it need posting?
- When disagreeing with someone, focus on facts rather than beliefs and opinions
- Focus on the common good rather than your individual agenda. What points do you have agreement on?
- Disagree with others respectfully.
- Have an openness to listening to others opinions, without hostility.
- Respect diverse views, opinions and groups.
- Work with co-workers with a spirit of collegiality.
- Offer productive and corrective feedback to those who behave in demeaning, insulting, disrespectful, and discriminatory ways; but always do so in kindness and respect.
Forms of Uncivil behavior that should be avoided:
- Using the f-bomb and other vulgar language on social media, or in your speech.
- Reacting to others with emotion, instead of research-based facts.
- Interrupting and talking over others who have the floor
- Stating insults as well as over-generalized and dispositional character criticisms and attributions
- Using aggressive, sarcastic, or demeaning language and tone
- Refusing to acknowledge the good points of others
If you were to faithfully incorporate but a few of these tips into your life, I believe you may find your contact with others, including those most close to you, will dramatically improve. In closing, thank you for giving this article consideration. Good luck!
p.s. If you found this article to be stimulating or of encouragement, please drop me a comment. Positive comments reinforce me to write other articles, especially if I realize my articles are improving life in the Blue Water area. Moreover, if you would like to add any comment, or if you disagree with any statement, please write me as well. I am always open to learning. Thank you.
Dennis is a 40+ year resident of the Blue Water area. He is a retired Executive Officer for two regional healthcare organizations; and was the CEO for his own successful Management Consulting firm. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and History from Western Michigan University; a Masters Degree in Professional Counseling from WMU; and a Specialist Degree in Psychology/Behavior Modification from the UM. Dennis is a Christ-follower, husband, father, grandfather, and loves golf, board games, and discussing politics and religion. He is a leader in Bible Study Fellowship (BSF); disciples several men; and has been an Elder, children’s bible teacher, Sunday school teacher, Life Group leader, and Men’s ministry leader in his church.
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