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.

Advertisements

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.


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”.