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.


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.


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.