Familiarity Breeds Contempt – For Civility

September 24, 2009
Cartoon Credit - Hubspot

Cartoon Credit - Hubspot

I have recently received a lot of requests to write about the effects that technology has had on civility and civil behaviors. Technology alone, or the innovation of new technologies, hasn’t had much of an impact on civility at all. But, the adoption of those technologies and how they are utilized has definitely contributed to incivility. As an example, the technological innovation that created the gun resulted in a device that could be used to feed and sustain my family through hunting, or fight a war. How a technology is used is the principle thing.  The way that we use technology today has resulted in a phenomenon that can lead directly to incivility and bad behaviors.

I’ll use a personal example to illustrate this point.

A couple of years ago, I created a Facebook account. My original purpose for doing so was to stay in contact with immediate as well as extended family members. Sharing photos and updating aunts and uncles on the latest accomplishments of our children was a low-effort activity through this social networking tool. But, then I started to get requests from friends and acquaintances. Who was I to turn down a request from a neighbor or a friend that I participated in community events with?

Then, the circle expanded. People started connecting to me that I hadn’t seen or spoken to in 10, 15 or even 20 years. High school classmates and community theater colleagues, as well as their friends that I could barely remember. (Hi – I’m Billy’s 2nd cousin twice removed and we were at a party together once when we were 17 and I waved at you from across the yard. Friend me?)

Virtual communities and relationships have been in existence for a very long time. MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are simply the next generation of social interaction enabled by a faster disassociated medium. There have been many technologies that have displaced face-to-face interaction. While ink and paper is an older form than electronic bulletin boards, email, chat and networking sites, even this medium is young when compared to other ancient methods of communicating without standing in front of each other. The virtual relationship is nearly as old as man. What is different is the speed of the technology, the information made available by that technology and most importantly, the false sense of community and relationship that the adoption of these new virtual forums has created.

The problem that technology utilization introduces, in relation to civility, is the problem of familiarity. Which brings me back to my personal Facebook experience.

Many of the folks that I connected to that were old school mates from 20+ years ago have lived an entire lifetime without any interaction between us. Our entire worldview, if it has not changed dramatically, has at least been influenced by 20 additional years of experience and age. Some of us have lost parents, children and spouses to accidents and illness. Some of us battled drug or alcohol addictions successfully. Many of us married, then divorced, then remarried. Some of us have blended families of hers, mine and ours when it comes to children. Some of us survived traumatic events and all of us have navigated a course through life that has resulted in the changing or modification of our core beliefs and values.

So, we post little tidbits of information and updates to our Facebook pages. Since we do not have the context of the prior 20 years to consider, our understanding of a person comes from these fragments of data that we synthesize into an assumption about each other.

Then, it happens. We believe that we are “familiar” with our old classmate. We think we know what they believe, how they feel and what is important to them because we have followed their Tweets for a year. Familiarity can be a dangerous thing. Because I believe that I know someone, I tend to act as if I am entitled to give them advice, comment on their situation or question their beliefs. When I become familiar, the taboo topics that Grandma and Grandpa told us were inappropriate for dinner conversation (sex, religion, politics) become fair game for discussion. This familiarity isn’t just limited to old friends. We develop this same sense of familiarity with celebrities, political candidates, religious leaders, bloggers, cult personalities from YouTube and a myriad number of other people. Because we have known them in a virtual world, we truly believe that we know them in the real world.

Familiarity breeds a sense of entitlement. When we feel entitled, we don’t feel bound by any constraints or limitations when we interact with each other. Without constraints or limits, we run the risk of being uncivil. If I make a rude comment about organized religion or personal faith to an old friend on Facebook, without the knowledge that religion or faith played an integral part in my friend’s personal journey and survival of the death of their child – I have applied a framework of virtual familiarity to a social interaction, with the result being a very uncivil behavior.

Technology enables a level of virtual interaction that is faster, is saturated with more information and can be cloaked in anonymity. Separately, none of these technological improvements foster incivility. But, when taken in a combination that allows a technology user to assume that the familiarity they have gained in a virtual realm is of equal weight and quality to a true relationship with someone; this is where incivility can, does and will continue to rear a very ugly head in our society.

Real relationships based on an unshakable respect for the value of each person in that relationship creates an environment where being uncivil is very difficult. Virtual relationships based on snippets of information that create a false sense of community with a person simply results in a roadway without the guard rails necessary for consistently civil behavior.


Disagreeable and Civil – What is Incivility?

September 21, 2009

Incivility is inexcusable.

This simple statement that serves as a guide for all of my thinking, writing and speaking on civility, elicits a large number of emotional and intellectual reactions. Sometimes these reactions are surprisingly negative.

Frequently, I am either asked or demanded to accept that incivility is excusable and justifiable when the situation warrants it. I have been told that civility “is not an absolute”. I have been told that I simply do not understand how complicated the world is, and that incivility is not only acceptable but it is to be expected. I have been told being uncivil was the reason for the successes of our colonies in fighting the British, fighting totalitarians, and combating communism.

And, and to all of these points I must respectfully disagree.

First, saying that incivility is inexcusable is not the same as saying that incivility is intolerable. We tolerate incivilities every single day. We even engage in incivilities ourselves, feeling either guilty or justified when we do so. But, tolerating incivility is different than excusing it. Communities and individuals alike will tolerate incivility to a point, and only when a threshold is reached will they act. Sometimes civilly, sometimes not. If we excuse incivility though, we support and endorse a society where civility has no meaning or place over the long term.

If we look back on the etymological roots of the word civility, we will remember that “people” are at the very core of the term. When civility has completely collapsed, we are placing ourselves against people. We are on the short and potentially bloody road to inhumanity.

Art credit - Scott Gustafson

Art credit - Scott Gustafson

Second, if we serve as apologists for small incivilities we will be more prone to cover our eyes, ears and mouths when those incivilities grow. In a future post, I am going to dedicate time and effort to a post about Hitler’s strategies that eventually led to the establishment of the Third Reich. Suffice it to say for this article, Hitler’s tactics started with sending his followers to disrupt meetings and businesses using rude and incivil behavior – which eventually became more and more aggressive until it resulted in merchants, citizens and political opponents being openly beaten in the streets of Germany.

There is no sensationalism in this claim; if you inspect the footprints of tyrants in history, you will find that all of them started their climb to inhumanity by engaging in small incivilities, first.

Third, and finally, incivility and protest are not to be confused. Civility is the fundamental respect that we accord to each and every person, in order to have a functioning community. If I disagree with you, that is not uncivil. If I demand that you believe what I believe, that is uncivil. Demanding that you subscribe to my world view is not an exercise of that fundamental respect mentioned above. If I act rudely, but I ask for your forgiveness by way of an apology, I am not acting uncivilly. I am acknowledging the value I place on our community by abiding by the fundamental respect required to keep it functioning. If I act rudely, and continue to press this rudeness to the point of aggression, I am being uncivil. In fact, I am declaring that I am not interested in being a part of this community that we’ve agreed to respect each other in.

Protest against an unjust system is not incivility. When King George III determined that colonists were not entitled to representation, that they must provide natural resources to England but purchase manufactured goods only from the British and that they must provide housing and food for British soldiers against their will he was declaring that the bounds of civility did not extend from the British throne to the shores of America. The heaping of incivilities on the colonies, when stacked one on the other, moved the needle to injustice. Injustice can, and frequently has been, met with civil disobedience. In many cases though, injustice is met with violence and war.

Incivility is opposition to civility. Inhumanity is the absence of civility in its entirety. But, protest is the response to injustice, perceived or real. Being uncivil doesn’t lead to protest, it leads to inhumanity. The goal of protesting isn’t to be uncivil, it is to correct a perceived or real injustice. In many ways protest is about supporting civility, not condoning incivility.

The terms and concepts are certainly interrelated, but in the end, it all starts with respecting the intrinsic value in each and every person. It all starts with civility.


Serena Maximus – Can Professional Sports Be Civil?

September 16, 2009
Can professional sports evolve beyond this?

Can professional sports evolve beyond this?

There are many times when I wonder if professional sports are beyond redemption when it comes to civilized behavior. The entire enterprise, regardless of sport, seems to be conditioned to promoting, encouraging and endorsing the worst behaviors in men and women and discards any objection to athletes-behaving-badly as a lack of understanding of the level and expectations that professional athletes must perform to.

Without justifying Serena’s behavior at the US Open, I think it is important to point out that her behavior was akin to the blisterings that John McEnroe gave many line judges over the course of his career. Name a highly visible athlete, and you are very hard pressed to find one that hasn’t blown a gasket or exhibited poor sportsmanship in a very public manner. There are definitely exceptions; “The Admiral” David Robinson comes to my mind, and of course there are many great philanthropists among today’s professional athletes (Troy Polamalu, Andre Aggasi, Jackie-Joyner Kersee). The list of professional athletes that give of their time and money is sizable.

But, it isn’t Polamalu’s philanthropy that pee wee football players are emulating when they talk trash to another elementary school-aged adversary that they just tackled. It isn’t Jack Nicklaus’ coolness under pressure or his recent charity events to support research into paralysis that high school varsity golf players are patterning when they smash a club into the ground.  When someone intentionally swings a flagrant elbow to someone’s face in a junior high basketball game, I’m guessing they aren’t thinking about all of Magic Johnson’s hard work in helping youth.

And that may be the flaw in our culture. We idolize, and are fed a constant diet of, the gladiator standing in the center of the arena drenched in his opponent’s blood. We want to see the carnage, the worst that an athlete can do. We don’t want to see the team we hate beaten, we want to see them destroyed. Something about sports, particularly professional sports, brings the worst out in spectators, fans and athletes. Our sports behaviors as athletes and spectators have not evolved much since the days of the Roman circus.  Winning at all costs is directly opposed to the ideals of sportsmanship and civility.

The noblest moments in sports seem to be reserved for the amateur ranks. Have we ever seen a professional sports equivalent of Sarah Tucholsky being carried around the bases by members of the opposing team? Not that I can recall. But we do get to see Terrell Owen’s dancing on an opponent’s sacred star – only to hear sports commentators near and far say “well, that is T.O. just being T.O.”. Really? That is as critical as we can be about bad sportsmanship? It isn’t just the popular media that excuses bad behavior. Player’s unions actually fight to have fines and penalties overturned or reduced for bona fide bad behavior, crimes and rule breaking – even when the player is undeniably guilty of the accusation.

The American public continues to uphold bad behavior at all levels in sport; no matter how many parents kill each other over blown calls at high school sporting events, no matter how many professional athletes commit murder, manslaughter or assault. No matter how many cleats are applied to another player’s calf in the pile, no matter how many forearms are thrown at the face of a guard driving for a lay-up in traffic. No matter how many arguments and screaming tantrums that is directed at the very officials that are tasked with enforcing the rules.

In Serena’s case; was the call a bad one? Yes, it appears that it was a bad call. Was it a high pressure situation? Yes, it was. Does it excuse the incivility exercised by Serena? Sadly, I think many readers will say; yes it does.


Mr. Wilson Revisited – Breakin’ All The Rules

September 16, 2009

Well, the wonderful thing about politicians is that you rarely need to wait any length of time for them to prove you wrong. Previously, I had made a case that Congressman Wilson was not being uncivil, predicated on the point that he was bound by, and immediately followed, the required protocol and policies that all Representatives and Senators tacitly agree to when they take their oath of office.

Well, Joe decided that he was above the rules. His motivations were many, but chief among them are money and power. I guess when faced with playing by the rules or making a ton of money in contributions; the easy decision is to apply partisanship to your perspective of fair play.

Mr. Wilson stated that his apology to the President “was enough”. Not really. Not according to the code of conduct that Mr. Wilson agreed to abide by when joining Congress. His offense, while directed at the President, was in fact a violation of a Congressional code of conduct. When the leadership of the House and Senate decided to apply pressure and discipline, Mr. Wilson rejected it out of hand and then conducted autograph signings of his now famous angry face.

And, as with many things political, the entire incident has highlighted the near universal lack of understanding of how our government works. Many people have declared that Joe Wilson has a First Amendment right to call the President a liar. As a corollary to this flawed theory, they also say that Mr. Wilson is justified in his remarks because they are true. In the latter instance, the application of “school-yard-bully logic” seems to be at play. Being right doesn’t necessitate or pre-determine the need to break the rules or be uncivil. There is this concept called “civil disobedience”; and it is called civil for a reason.

For those who style themselves champions of free speech, I expect little consideration of the following point. The freedom of speech is not an inalienable right. Here is the actual text of the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The First Amendment is a civil liberty. The pursuit of life, liberty and happiness are natural, or inalienable rights. The freedom of speech is a conditional liberty. This is why the Supreme Court spends a substantial amount of time determining what is protected speech and what is not protected under the First Amendment. A lawyer in Florida was recently disciplined by the Bar for having blogged negative comments about the judge presiding in his case. The Bar and the Florida State Supreme Court ruled that the attorney had no protected speech rights, because “When you become an officer of the court, you lose the full ability to criticize the court.” As stated by Michael Downey, a professor of legal ethics at Washington University law school.

And, why are lawyers restricted in their ability to criticize the court? Because they have agreed to a code of conduct, just as our Senators and Representatives have. Because a courtroom with out civility would function just as well as a Senate floor without civility.

So, ultimately, money and power and the selective application of our own Constitution have been used as excuses to justify uncivil behavior. Our problem in America isn’t the disappearance of civility, it is the continued justification that incivility is acceptable. Many people are calling Mr. Wilson’s discipline an insult, because everyone else in Congress – Democrat or Republican – is just as corrupt or behaves just as badly. So, we determine when, or if, we will be civil only if someone else is being civil? Maybe when we stop making excuses for being bad, we can start being good.


Kanye West – Enfant Terrible, much?

September 15, 2009

Alas poor Kanye, we barely knew thee.

Like many, I’ve become desensitized by the blatant and constant bad behavior of celebrities. But, Kanye West may have taken the Moon Man statue for all-time boneheaded-ness at the VMA ceremony this past Sunday.

We’ve seen the aftermath of hotel room destruction and the punching of camera men. We’ve heard expletive filled tirades by models, actors, musicians and authors. We’ve heard of, and read, performance contract riders demanding everything from pure water melted from Nordic glaciers to M&Ms that must be served at precisely 52 degrees Fahrenheit.

But, Kanye’s on-stage antics were like watching someone club a baby koala to death. Taylor Swift was obviously shocked and surprised. The audience responded with catcalls and boos, and chants of “Taylor” every time that Kanye’s name was mentioned throughout the evening. Something tells me that when an entire auditorium filled with self-absorbed celebrities starts booing you for your behavior; you can say definitively that things are going badly.

Kanye’s incivility really can’t be tempered or rationalized. I think Mr. West is dealing with a lot of personal demons and probably a level of career exhaustion after 4 albums in 5 years, constant touring and the passing of his mother. All that said, as I’ll always maintain, incivility is inexcusable. Celebrities have always been amongst the least self-aware of our citizens. If Kanye was getting to the point where the pressures of his career and personal life were bearing down so heavily on him, he should have recognized the warning signs and taken some time off in Ibiza, or at least Myrtle Beach.

Without a doubt, the saving grace of the evening was Beyonce Knowles. Once again, an ugly event still provides an opportunity for an exercise of civility that can serve as a beacon and guide for us. I don’t put much stock in the histrionics of celebrities, and like most people I question the motives of many celebrities who “do the right thing” as a part of a press opportunity. Certainly Bob Geldof and Bono have shown how celebrities can do the right thing on an impressive and grand scale. I largely considered her to be in the group of celebrities well down the scale from the likes of George Harrison. It was certainly my failing in considering her to be such a lightweight.

Beyonce’s call to Taylor Swift to return to the stage and have her moment was as classy as Kanye’s actions were crass. Beyonce not only felt empowered to correct a wrong, she actually took steps to correct a wrong. At the end of this episode of rudeness and bad manners, the golden lining is that Beyonce showed 27 million viewers that the thing to do when things go wrong is make them right.


Be Nice – Get Free Stuff!

September 12, 2009

Getting back to the more mundane day-to-day of being civil, I think it is time to address the question of “what is in it for me”? Why be nice?

First, let me state clearly that I believe we should be civil for the sake of being civil, not for an expectation of  a reward or compensation. Being nice is an end unto itself, not a means. But, I have found time and time again that practicing overt civility in public yields tangible benefits as a side effect. And, I’m not just talking about going home at night and feeling good about myself.

I have had many occasions where my courtesy, kindness or attentiveness have resulted in the receipt of some form of recognition. I’ve called a maitre’d or head waiter over to my table to compliment the truly exemplary service of a staff member and received free desserts. I have told a friend and business owner that I have brought my project to them because I know the end product will be high quality, and I’ve received a discount (or happily, a bottle of good wine). Or, football tickets from friends who remember me saying something kind about their son or daughter.

But, one particular event sticks out in my memory as the pinnacle of my free-stuff-for-good-manners history.

I had the good fortune of attending a conference in Zurich, Switzerland a couple of years ago. The conference was great, and as it finished up I packed to head home. I totally failed to read my travel itinerary, and the chain of events that followed was entirely my fault. I showed up at the Zurich airport at 9:00 a.m. for my flight back to the United States, and jumped into the mass of people that passes for a check-in line in Europe. When I reached the desk, the agent looked at me with disdain and informed me that I had missed my flight. I was shocked, but upon reading my itinerary I realized that my travel office has booked a connecting flight. I always took direct flights home when I worked in Europe, so I didn’t even bother to check to see if I had a first and second flight.

I sulked my way over to the airline desk and stood in another line. I was really put off, even though it was my fault. Standing in the line, I realized that I needed to own my mistake. I really, really wanted to be ornery and mean. I wasn’t a happy camper. But, when I stepped up to speak to the agent, I explained that I completely screwed up and I understood if it might take me an extra day to get home. The young lady shook her head and said it would be very difficult to help me. As I was speaking to her, a really aggressive gentleman pushed his way past me and demanded to know where he was supposed to check in. Over the course of the next half hour, the agent worked on my situation but was repeatedly interrupted by the same man coming to the counter and getting more and more agitated. Because he kept leaving the line, the airline actually closed out the flight before he checked in. And then the fireworks started. Eventually he was escorted from the ticket desk by security.

After the drama subsided, the ticket agent said to me “You know, I’m not really authorized to do this, but you have been so nice to me, and patient. And that other guy was such a jerk. I can get you on a connecting flight from here to Frankfort, Germany. When you get there, I have booked you in the First Class section on the second deck of the airplane.” I’ve traveled a lot, but I have never before or since gotten to ride in the top deck of a Lufthansa 747. And I have to tell you, it was awesome!

99% of the time, acting in a civil manner doesn’t result in anything other than a warm feeling. But, there is no denying that there are tangible benefits to being nice; whether it is a free extra shot of espresso or the use of a friend’s vacation home for a week of relaxing.

So, go out there and be nice – and get free stuff!


Mr. Wilson’s War – On Class

September 11, 2009

CaningSumnerJoe Wilson is not uncivil. There, I said it. While this statement is out of step with the barrage of coverage on civility in the past 24 hours, it actually offers a clarification of that most tricky of arenas for the practice of civil behavior; our government.

Civility, in its most basic form, is a set of boundaries and constraints that an individual or community agrees to in order to function as a unified whole. These boundaries and constraints are enforced through culture, tradition, protocol and laws, both written and unwritten. Now, the Congress is a Pantheon of protocol. The written rules of procedure are staggeringly complex and decidedly arcane. These boundaries exist for a very specific purpose. Our founding fathers and subsequent generations intuitively understood that a group of Type A personalities whose vocation was elected office would never get anything accomplished (or decidedly less than they do now) if there weren’t some type of controls in place.

While it may seem strange to many Americans, Mr. Wilson’s outburst was completely within the established and agreed upon border lines of the protocols of the Senate and House.

Was it boorish? Yes.
Rude? Yes.
Low class? Yes.
Disrespectful? Yes.
Uncivil? No.

Mr. Wilson operated within constraints of his community. In fact, Mr. Wilson perfected the example of the behaviors expected of a US Congressman when he immediately wrote a letter of apology, called the President to apologize and will most likely receive some form of rebuke from his own party and the House as well.

By comparison, Vice-President Cheney’s behaviors have been blatantly uncivil. In Mr. Cheney’s case he, with malice and intention, broke a 230 year tradition of former Executive branch officials. Mr. Cheney has repeatedly denigrated President Obama’s administration, and has made a decision that 230 years of boundaries and constraints do not apply to him.

Mr. Wilson made an embarrassing error, but quickly sought forgiveness. President Obama didn’t hesitate a moment to personally accept that apology. Mr. Cheney’s actions are completely without repentance. He is breaking the long standing expectations of his office, with no apologies. Unrepentant bad behavior is an act of incivility.

I will tend to avoid writing about politics in the future, because it is simply too easy of a target. But, this event is certainly of the type that can’t be ignored when civility is a subject that I am passionate about. As I close today’s entry though, I think it is important to mention that the feigned and faked horror on both sides of the aisle is laughable. As I mentioned earlier, the US House and Senate are truly a special case in American culture. Even with the rules and protocols, the chambers of our Congress are not meant to be tread by the weak of heart and short of constitution. “You lie” pales in comparison to the large number of certifiably uncivil acts that have occurred within those chambers. To put things in perspective, consider the case of Congressman Brooks and Senator Sumner. On May 22, 1865 Mr. Preston Brooks entered the Senate chamber and walked up behind Senator Charles Sumner. Mr. Brooks proceeded to beat Mr. Sumner savagely with a cane. Senator Sumner took years to recover and many modern historians believe he suffered brain damage from the attack.

Sticks and stones will break those bones, but words will never hurt within the walls of our Capitol building. Words, even when inappropriately interjected during a Presidential speech, are still considered part of the civil discourse within that community.


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