Anonymity – Familiarity’s Ugly Cousin and the Bane of Civility

October 7, 2009
Is being invisible a good thing?

Is being invisible a good thing?

The availability of information, in both volume and speed, has been one of the key contributions made by technological innovation in fostering incivility. Familiarity, as the old saying goes, does breed contempt. But, the greater threat to civility and civil behaviors is most certainly the cloak and veil that technology now provides to each and every one of us in our dealings with each other.

It is a fascinating condition of the human race; that we embrace both the best and worst that a technology has to offer. While I will spend some time today writing about chat rooms, avatars and hate-speech camoflauged as political commentary – the tendency for humans to use and misuse an innovation applies to stone wheels just as much as it does to bits and bytes.

The lowly hammer; it is most commonly used to build things. Hammering nails and framing houses, or fixing the dog house are natural activities for this technological innovation that took us beyond pounding some form of a peg with a large rock. But, that same hammer on many occasions, has been wielded and brandished as a weapon. Pounding a nail or bashing a skull – humans seem to find the light and dark within every single implement. Guns, axes, dynamite, atom smashing, oxycontin; the list of innovations that we corrupt is as long as history itself.

Computer based technology is no different, but the consequences for civility are just as concerning. The darkest aspect of technology, even darker than our continuous exposure to on-line fraud and theft, is the lack of responsibility and accountability that the anonymity of a virtual personality provides. The disconnectedness of being constantly connected manifests in the tendency for human beings to say things in an internet chatroom or on a comment string associated with a news story that they would never, ever say in the presence of a real live human being.

I’ll use an example to highlight how frightening the veil of anonymity has become, and how easy it is to be uncivil in the virtual world. I could link this posting to hundreds, if not thousands, of comments to news stories. But, a recent story in my hometown is certainly as good as any to drive home the point. On September 23, 2009 the Columbus Dispatch reported on a local speech given by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. Mr. LaHood took issue with conservative talk show hosts, suggesting that their analysis and rhetoric (“trash talk”) had contributed to a decline in civility.

As I have written before, I don’t find that I learn much about civility by observing or researching politicians or political analysts. We live in an age where conservatives use inflammatory words and phrases but deny that they have any responsiblity for the potential consequences should things get out of control. And, in this same age, liberals are screaming for a more civil discourse and the complete elimination from memory of any of the bad behaviors and vitriolic rhetoric that they leveraged when they were in the minority.

I’m reminded of what Will Rogers had to say about the state of political behavior in the United States some 80 years ago – “I bet after seeing us, George Washington would sue us for calling him “father.””

What I would ask of you is that you read the comments to this news article, as many of the 1265 as you can stomach. Rather than addressing whether Mr. LaHood’s argument is defensible (are conservative talk show hosts contributing to a decline in civility), the comments immediately focus on demanding that the reader subscribe to one political ideology or another. Since I am in the mood for quotes today, the seething anger and vicious statements made by commentators on this news story recalls a point by Oscar Wilde “Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.”

Hate, racism, rants, venom – all of these uncivil aspects of discourse, and more, manifest themselves in the comments to this news story. Many of the people on this comment thread could be your neighbors, friends, aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, your boss or your community leaders. Unfortunately, we can’t tell, because no one knows for sure who they are really are. In fact, one of them might be you. With names like “theTruth”, “Troll”, “Legal American” and “Master Yoda” not only are we denied the opportunity to know who is writing, the writer is given carte blanche to be as uncivil as they want to be. Read some of the most antagonistic postings in this thread, and then wonder on whether the person who wrote it would be inclined to say the same thing – verbatim – in church or at a PTA meeting. Would they be so bold to stand up in a meeting of Rotarians, a Chamber of Commerce or a school board meeting and share the same sentiments? Not only is the answer a resounding “no”, most of these writers would be personally embarassed to make such offensive comments in any public setting.

But, the internet changes everything. The upstanding citizen within our community that deems the anonymous “tagging” of a train box car with graffiti that points out any number of social ills in our inner city as a blight on society, sees no parallel to their own anonymous “tagging” of news stories and blog posts in the same light. The graffiti artist is a social misfit (as opposed to an artist), but an anonymous commentator spouting a hate filled response is not? The anonymity of the internet has created an environment where the absolute worst aspects of our human nature manifest themselves; stalking, pedophilia, bullying to the point of driving someone to suicide, revenge postings of nude photographs of former girlfriends, boyfriends and spouses.

If you were invisible, and could not be held responsible for what you say or do – what would you do with such power? Maybe you don’t need to think about an answer to this thought experiment. Maybe all you need to do is re-read some of the postings you have made in the vast anonymity of the internet. Maybe being invisible has made us much less civil.


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.


When Life Became Worthless

February 2, 2009
The trenches were the beginning of the end

The trenches were the beginning of the end

In my previous post, I mentioned that I have a theory that two key macro-events  in the 20th century were the fuel for the near lightning speed decline of civility around the world. The first of these macro-events will be discussed in this post – and can be clearly tracked to a specific year, 1914.

Not quite 15 years into the new century, a “warm-up” to the collapse of civility began. As European powers were drawn into World War I by an entanglement of alliances between legacy empires (Ottoman, German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, etc.), the taking of human life reached a horrifying level. As many as 10 million military deaths and 8 million civilian deaths were attributed directly to the war, which did not include any deaths associated with the collateral damage of the war, such as famine and disease. Killing on this scale had never been experienced in the world – and little did anyone know that it was just a prelude to what has become the most dangerous century in human history.

After World War I, Europe settled into an uneasy truce where most of the problems that contributed to the conflict were neither resolved nor eliminated. In fact, the French and Germans in particular not only failed to resolve any problems – they actually placed their old border dispute issues in the same tea kettle and then proceeded to warm it up over an even hotter fire. War compensation treaty agreements from Germany to the other European powers was so high, that Germany’s economy collapsed and inflation grew by hundreds of percent – sometime just from week to week. Out of an uncivilized war had come an uncivilized peace, which set the groundwork for the complete annihilation of the worth of individual human beings. While the after-effects of unresolved conflict in Europe led to the political rise of a bad Austrian artist with an inflammatory speech-making ability – men named Trotsky, Stalin and Lenin overturned an imperial government and then began a power struggle amongst themselves that would lead to an authoritarian rule that would have an equally devastating impact on the devaluing of human life.

When the opening salvos of World War II were heard, the elimination of human life occurred on such an enormous scale that the entire world became, and remains to this day, insensitive to the value of human life. Adolf Hitler was personally responsible for as many as 20 million deaths – and proved single-handedly that the extreme end of incivility is inhumanity. Josef Stalin, after eliminating his co-conspirators, embarked on a hellacious reign that conservative estimates credit with the deaths of more than 60 million people.

In the 20th century, the human capability for inhumanity caught up with our technological ability to carry out that inhumanity. The 20th century was the deadliest era in human history. Pol Pot killed 1.7 million people. Hutus and Tutsis slaughtered (and continue to slaughter) each other by the hundreds of thousands. Kurds were assaulted with chemical weapons. And, lest we in America get carried away by the idea that we have a moral “high ground” when it comes to despotic regimes killing thousands; I would encourage you to read “A Legacy of Ashes – A History of the CIA”. Between 1946 and the present day, the US government has sent tens, if not hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals to their deaths through covert operations.

While killing is the ultimate act of incivility, it is not the only heinously anti-civil act. Along with millions upon millions being killed, millions upon millions were raped, mutilated and enslaved in the 20th century as well. Effectively, the value of human life was assigned a “zero” in the 20th century. And, when a life is worth “zero”, individuals, governments and dictators have no need to recognize the intrinsic value in each human being. The stage is set for the elimination of civility.

The macro-effect that I set out to describe in this post is the mass desensitization that we all have succumbed to when it comes to the intrinsic value of human life. When 300,000 Africans are wiped off the face of the earth, with no help or intervention from anyone – why should we be surprised by a 15 year old pulling a trigger and blowing the brains out of a class mate, teacher or parent? We’d like to convince ourselves that these are two separate and unrelated activities – that one represents governmental responsibility and the other personal responsibility. But, these are the things we tell ourselves so we can sleep at night. The collective conscience of the world has been numbed to the incivility of life-taking; we all pretty much accept that it is part of living in today’s modern society. The sad thing is, it does not have to be.

Estimates on the number of people slaughtered in the 20th century due to war, authoritarian regimes, covert operations and war induced famine and disease range anywhere from 250,000,000 to 500,000,000 people. If you doubt how desensitized the global world population has become to the possibility of death at another person’s hand – take this point into consideration. Instead of viewing these deaths across a 100 year time horizon, let us say that they all occur in tomorrow.

You might want to wish yourself into a European vacation before you try this thought experiment on for size. Every man, woman and child in the United States – when you wake up tomorrow – is gone. The population of the US missing over 100 years; “that’s life”, “people die in war”, “what are you gonna do?”. The population of the US missing in a day? – the ramifications are mind boggling.

The ultimate act of incivility is the taking of a life. The exercising of incivility on a mass scale is an act of inhumanity. And, inhumanity exercised over a long time-continuum has enforced the wildly erroneous belief that some (if not all) lives have an intrinsic value of zero; leading to a diminished capability for civility on a personal, local, national and global level.

Maybe Darfur and The Congo aren’t places on a map; maybe they are measurements of our conscience and civility.


The Core of Incivility

February 1, 2009

So – what is it that is at the very root of incivility?

I have a personal theory connecting the 50 year decline of civility with two key macro-events of the 20th century. I will write more on that observation soon, but for the moment I want to focus on what is at the very core of incivility – not the contributing causes to a worldwide decline, but the very essence at the individual person level.

It is often said that the most painful image for us to look at is our own reflection. I’m expecting that a discussion about the root cause of incivility is going to invoke that same kind of awkward feeling that we’d rather not expose ourselves to. The root cause of incivility is us.

I’m not trying to be cute or trite with this statement. I’m not co-opting Pogo and simply stating that “we have met the enemy and he is us”, and expecting anyone to walk away from this post with something they can actually use. There is more to this “us” than meets the eye.

Over the last 50 years, primarily through the actions of two distinctly different generations – the world, particularly the American world, has become “I” centric. Not only has our society become “I” centric, it is a cultural shift that has been demanded, endorsed, expected, promoted and advertised by countless means through the Baby Boomer and Gen X generations. The Baby Boomer produced a cultural tsunami where all things were acceptable, all experiences were achievable and it was all about the individual gaining unfettered personal, spiritual, political and corporeal freedom. Gen Xers took this individual freedom into the realm of consumerist expression – there are no experiences or achievements, successes or trappings that can’t be bought, bartered, earned or …well, stolen.

And I want it all. George Carlin’s masterpiece of comedy, “Stuff”, was a brilliant illumination of how “I” centric our world is.

A veritable black hole for civility

A veritable black hole for civility

So what? There is no “I” in team -who cares?

“I” is the destroyer of civility. Civility is practiced when “i” is in small case, and “YOU” is in large case. Incivility is nothing more than the physical manifestation of “my needs are more important than your needs”. Think about the person cutting you off in the morning on your driving commute to work. This person (and I’m sure it is you on some days) truly believes that their need to be somewhere is more important than your need to be somewhere, or even to be safe. To continue the traffic example, what is it that causes you to take a moment to let someone cut in before you in a traffic jam? Is it not just a brief moment where you say “what difference does one more car make, we will all get there at the same time, let me let this person in”. In an instant, you have just subordinated your needs to the person that you offered the courtesy to. And that is civility.

To further argue that the core of incivility has been the rampant rise of the “I” centric world, let me leave today’s writing with a thought experiment for you.

Imagine what your behaviors would be like if you found yourself invited to a reception with heads of state, superstar athletes and your personal heroes. You, my friend, are the lowest person on the social totem pole in this room. As far as you know, no one cares what you have to say. You have no advantage of wealth, power or position in this setting. Your “I” has no value at this party. How would you act? Many of us have been in similar situations, and we find ourselves in awe of our fellow party goers. We are overly courteous and overly kind. We use “yes sir” and “no ma’am” as our responses. We go out of our way to make our best impression on people, and we are grateful for the opportunity. Now, carry this thought experiment a bit further. What if everyone is absolutely thrilled you are there? Presidents and Prime Ministers ask about your ideas. Power brokers ask after the health of your family. Grammy award winners are interested in what you think about their music. As they focus not on the “I”, but on the “you”, and you have focused on the “you” and not the “I” – the benefit and reward, and the recognition of everyone’s intrinsic value results in a truly wonderful event.

So, you acted this way at the last party you attended, right? You focused on others, and not yourself. You asked after others instead of talking about your achievements, portfolio and wonderful kids who do nothing wrong, right? You were a model of civility because you focused on the “you” and not the “I”, right?

We are less civil, because we are “I”.


He Was Someone

January 31, 2009
Photo credit - Max Ortiz/Detroit News

Photo credit - Max Ortiz/Detroit News

Coming home from work night before last, I heard an interview on National Public Radio with a gentleman by the name of Charlie LeDuff. Charlie is a reporter with the Detroit News, and a story that he recently published has caught a bit of national attention. While many might read his story and decide that any hope for a return of civility is completely lost, I actually think that Charlie and a man with no name and new shoelaces give us reason to believe in the value each of us has.

Charlie LeDuff received an anonymous phone call from a man who told him that someone was frozen in ice at the bottom of an elevator shaft in the old Roosevelt warehouse at 14th Street and Michigan Avenue in Detroit. After the building had burned in 1987, it was left to rot by its multi-billionaire owner. For nearly 20 years the warehouse has become a repository, not for Detroit city school books as it once was, but for homeless and forgotten citizens of the Motor City.

Charlie went to investigate, and sure enough, he found a man frozen solid in several feet of ice – head first in the cold tomb with his feet sticking out from the shins up. Charlie mentioned in his news article and the radio interview that the John Doe had new shoelaces. After rooting around to get some answers as to who the man was, Charlie was shocked to learn that the man had been there for at least a month – with a world of activity going on around him. People simply walked by the corpse for days and weeks on end. Charlie’s news report has a hint of quiet desparation in its opening line:

“This city has not always been a gentle place, but a series of events over the past few, frigid days causes one to wonder how cold the collective heart has grown.”

As I mentioned at the top of this entry, it might be easy for us to ascribe animalistic behaviors to the homeless who saw the corpse as nothing more than a shoe rack. Or, we could lament the apathetic and pathetic response of the Detroit Police Department when they were finally called, by Charlie, and failed to come out to investigate after the first 911 call. We could bemoan the state of American inner-cities and point to the failure of leadership as the reason for the conditions that created the situation that eventually led to this lost soul being frozen and forgotten. All of these observations, and more, might lead us to the conclusion that civility is irretrievable.

But, I think that Charlie LeDuff is breathing proof that civility is alive and well in the form of one single individual who is willing to acknowledge that intrinsic value in every human life.

Charlie called 911 again and followed-up with the police until they came and literally carved the man with the new shoelaces out of elevator shaft. When he was speaking on NPR, he said some things that gave me hope and pride.

“He was someone’s baby. He was someone, and he deserves an obituary.”

Obviously, if there had been someone in the frozen man’s life that cared and respected him as much as Mr. LeDuff did in his death, there probably would be no news story. But that is the point, isn’t it? In exercising a kind act, in offering a hand to a stranger, in consoling a friend, in letting someone have our place in line – is it not in these small acts of humanity and civility that we validate that intrinsic value in all people? Mr. LeDuff certainly isn’t the only civil person in Detroit, and it is sad that a senseless death is the catalyst necessary to draw attention to this fact. But, thank you Mr. LeDuff for having the boldness to print your story and to care about a man with new shoelaces.


You Just Want Me to Conform

January 29, 2009

The biggest obstacle that we need to overcome is the perception, belief and expectation that being civil means following rules. While rules of etiquette and manners are nice; whether or not we use an oyster fork correctly has no bearing on the collapse of civility in the world. For many people, civility means conformity – but this is simply not the case.

I expect that someone will wish to disagree on the place setting point, reminding us that back in a time when oyster forks, dinner jackets, ascots, no pants for women and business casual meant a slightly loosened necktie; that things were much more civil. To clearly illuminate how distracting the idea that civility dressed up by manners and rules is; bear in mind that when all of these nostalgic throwbacks were considered the height of civility, racism, sexism, xenophobia, class-ism, colonialism and a great many other anti-civil “isms” were abundantly in practice.

Civility is not a book full of rules. Long gone are the times when we can hang our expectations on a virtually unreadable, and impracticable, set of dicta. Again, those who are nostalgically inclined will recall the quaint stories of George Washington translating and copying “110 Rules of Civility” from French to English.  While some may think that we can reclaim a civilized society by copying rules set down by Jesuit priests nearly 500 years ago – we are better served in seeking ways to identify a 21st century civility. Civility is not about rules; it is about ideals, beliefs and trust.

Civility, in the 21st century, begins with an understanding that every person’s life is valuable. Whether a person is occupying a mud-walled, two room house in Western Kenya, or a 20,000 square-foot mansion in Reston, Virginia; there is an equality of intrinsic value within both. At our very core, when stripped down of all we possess and all that defines us – we are abundantly, beautifully and wonderfully equal. Civility is no longer the courtly manners of the colonial power, exercised over a conquered people. Civility is an exercise and practice among individuals with value to offer to each other.

While there are books and writings on appropriate manners and behavior, they serve as a guideline only. Adopting or adapting the correct civil behavior in a formal setting is window dressing only, and does not address the foundations of what we need to adjust within ourselves to bring civility, as a practice, into this new century.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.