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.

Why Be Civil?

January 25, 2009

Over the course of the last 50 years in America (and around the world), we have witnessed a constant erosion of civility in our personal lives, home communities, local and national governments and in our interactions at the international level amongst powers, both super and not.

In this span of time, we have gone from a consumer-oriented environment where uniformed personnel pumped our gas and checked our oil, to fast food counters where staff members look as if they would rather strap us to a medieval torture device, than take a simple order for fries and a milk shake.

We have seen American sports devolve from a civil endeavor amongst sportsmen and sportswomen to parents shrieking at volunteer referees at soccer matches and pee wee football games. The collapse of civility is so thorough in our sporting lives that parents have actually physically assaulted and even killed each other over perceived “blown calls” and other children’s unsportsmanlike behavior.

Around the world, people now feel entitled to inquire, debate and belittle other people for the ideas they hold, the countries they originate from and the leaders they follow. A laundry list of subjects that were once considered “bad form” for discussion at the dinner table are now consider fair game and appropriate ground for showing everyone how witty, intelligent or wry we are.

Doors are no longer held open – not for women, children or even the elderly. Vulgar gestures are shown in an effort to communicate our contempt for a person driving the exact speed limit, and the vulgarity is answered with gunfire. Entire generations of our youth have such utter contempt for civility that acquaintance rape, drive-by shootings, school bus beat downs, pornographic cell phone picture “love letters”, and trench coat mafias are almost accepted as part and parcel of growing up in America.

How and when did we reach a point when hand shakes, returning eye contact with our conversation partner, exchanging “please” and “thank you” and being concerned about the well being of a stranger become almost reviled aspects of our culture? And, does it matter?

I believe that there isn’t just a case to be made for the return of civility in our lives, I believe that it is a fundamental necessity to our survival as a species on this planet. Without the practice of civility, life has become a vicious activity focused on escalation. Instead of situations being handled in a civil manner, with a positive outcome for both participants, there now must be a winner in every interaction. And, if I don’t win, I escalate. You call me a name, I call you a name. You raise your hand, I beat you to the punch. You pull out a knife, I reach for my gun. In our intimate lives, we went from a world where kissing in public was a sign of promiscuity to an escalated environment where young teens virtually (and sometimes in reality) have sex on the dance floor in front of their peers and colleagues.

Civility says that I respect you as a person. That sometimes my needs have to be put aside to accomplish a greater good between us.  That, on occasion, I have to withhold what I want to say so that I can listen to what you have to say.

It is time for civility to return; before it is too late for all of us.