Personal Responsibility: The Engine that Drives Civility

February 22, 2010

Which one is the water glass again?

Like all subjects, when we commit ourselves to a course of study and thought, we realize new discoveries almost every single day. I’ve written about anonymity, technology, sportsmanship, political protocol and garden variety manners. Obviously it is easy to point out the incivilities within our personal relationships, communities and even amongst the nations of the world. But my purpose was never to be solely a social commentator. First and foremost, I want to find pathways and solutions to re-position civility as the framework of choice for our behaviors. An observer is interested, but a participant is committed. I don’t want to sit back and write about the obvious, I want to participate with you in finding a better way.

I haven’t focused a great deal of attention on the most obvious outward manifestation of civility; manners. Limiting the conversation about civility to manners is like to trying to understand the subject of mathematics by focusing only on subtraction and addition. But there are definitely lessons to be learned by considering what manners mean in the larger context of civility and incivility.
There is a unique characteristic about manners that few of us recognize. Which fork to use? What salutation to use when greeting someone? How soon after an event do you send a thank you note? Manners are not about how others are supposed to treat you. Manners are not a guide for others to follow when they interact with you. Manners are about me. Manners are about what I do. How I react. How I respond.

This is a terribly important truth. If manners are about how we are supposed to behave on an individual level, then when we complain about the decline and sometimes complete evaporation of manners in day-to-day life we are really pointing out the failure of personal responsibility; the failure of what I am supposed to do. We are saying that the people around us have walked away from their personal responsibility to monitor, manage and modify their own actions.  When people say that manners are not important, they are abdicating others and themselves of their personal responsibility for their own behavior.

Many readers might quickly suggest that the “golden rule” and the many variations of it expressed in several religions and philosophy must have been a guiding force in the development of each civilization’s rules for manners. But I am not so convinced. I am not ashamed, in the least, to say that I am an evangelical Christian, a follower of Christ – even when I know that many readers may immediately apply an unfair stereotype or expectation to who they think I am. The reason I bring my personal faith to this discussion is in the context of my conclusion that the “golden rule” is actually an inborn part of the human spirit, and not necessarily a guiding principle driven by religion; any religion.

I could point to the moment when Jesus Christ schooled the Pharisees and Sadducees on the greatest commandment and on the second ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ in Matthew 22:34-40 and say ‘see, Christianity is all about the golden rule’. Obviously the flaw in my statement is that the force of Christianity and even the words of the Bible have been used to justify two millennia of decidedly uncivil behaviors; from the absolute power of monarchy to slavery. Even though the texts of many of the major faiths have a variation of ‘love your neighbor’ not all of them do. And, whether Hebrew or Hindu or Buddhist, it is difficult to attribute all the good things in manners and interpersonal behaviors to faith without acknowledging all the bad things in manners and interpersonal behaviors done in the name of faith.

The driving force for manners, then, can’t be fully explained by religion. In fact, you can’t convincingly argue that manners are even guided by ‘do naught unto others”. Manners, when executed with pure intention, are more closely aligned to something not recorded in any text that I’ve found – “I will do the right thing regardless of what you do”.

Ultimately, maybe this is why we perceive there to be such a decline in manners. Maybe our collective cultural obsessions with consumerism, power, control, winning, dominating, subjugating or demanding that our opinion or belief is better than your opinion or belief has short-circuited our very nature; the inborn nature in all of us to sacrifice just a bit of our self-interest to honor the intrinsic value in another human being. Maybe we, as individuals, have decided that what we want has become so all important that sacrificing any of it is no longer worth our time or effort. Subduing our desires by conforming to some archaic rule about soup spoons is simply too much work. We can’t be bothered or troubled with even the simple manners of holding a door or saying thank you.

The next time you find yourself irritated or chagrined by another person’s lack of manners, take a second to remember that bringing manners back is about what I do. Regardless of what they do.

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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.