Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Death of civility

There is ample proof in the airwaves that the United States has turned into nothing more than an on-going episode of the Jerry Springer show.

Last week as I was glued on watching television, one of those little and idle indulgences I can easily afford now that all the children have left the house, three incidents of impolite and boorish behaviour stood out from the rest of the week’s TV menu.

It started Wednesday, September 9, when a South Carolina congressman shouted, “You lie,” at the President of the United States while the latter was delivering his speech before a joint session of Congress. Yes, the same forum where President Obama stressed the need for civility over acrimony during the national debate on his administration’s health care reform.

On Saturday, September 12, after being called for a foot fault by a line judge, defending U.S. Open Champion Serena Williams walked towards the line judge and, brandishing her racket and squeezing a tennis ball in her left hand, shouted, “I swear to God I’m gonna take this [bleeping] ball and shove it down your [bleeping] throat.”

Then during Sunday’s MTV Video Awards, September 13, hip-hop star Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for best video by a female artist. “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you. I’m gonna let you finish,” West barked after disrupting Taylor during her speech, “but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time.”

Could this be the death of civility?

These unfortunate events serve to remind us that we need to reclaim the word “civility,” a word originally linked to the concept of “civilization” and had diminished its essence by the mid-20th century to a genteel term for nominal courtesy. But even at a dwindled level of significance, civility has become more than an older person’s personal rush of nostalgia.

Just log into the Internet, You Tube and Twitter and read comments of virtually any blog, political or whatever, and follow the grievances of Internet pundits and see how much of the public discourse has become polluted beyond all productive use. We will be amazed at how other people are predisposed to acting like Neanderthals whose idea of intelligent dialogue consists of hurling venom, trash and incendiary invectives at others. It is frightening how technology has allowed a virtual platform for these people to spew vicious comments and pander to ignorance, fear and irrationality for their own selfish interests.

In my own chat group, I have experienced being at the receiving end of ad hominem arguments and rude and vulgar outbursts that are neither relevant nor germane to the subject of the discourse. Here, civility is set aside in favour of camaraderie and fellowship so common with gangsters. Loyalty to the group defines positions and allegiances on certain issues. It is worse when the culpable person pretends to belong to this group by masquerading as a fellow school alumnus when he really is not, and makes the loudest noise during exchanges of conversations, perhaps to bolster his imagined ruses for membership. Worst of all, his closest friends who are officers in the group would remain in complicit silence even as this person finally owns up to his made-up claims.

When George Washington was a young man of 16, he became interested in the rules of conduct that guided gentlemen of his day. It was told that he located and copied as set of 110 “rules of activity” that had their origins at a Jesuit college in France in the late 17th century. What we do know now, these rules guided Washington’s private and public behaviour for the rest of his life.

Nobody in all perfection can possibly live up to all these 110 rules, but two at least are relevant to restoring civility.

#58 – Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for this is a sign of a tractable and commendable nature: and in all causes of passion admit reason to govern.

#65 – Speak not injurious words neither in jest nor earnest scoff at none although they give occasion.

If we can strive to master these two rules which George Washington always tried to follow in his entire life, there’s no doubt our conversations will always be genteel, civil and without acrimony.

There was of course a time when we are more tolerant of each other. Everyone agreed on certain basic assumptions of civic order, like it’s probably a bad idea to have people carrying guns to town hall meetings or football games, for example. That we might hold our tongue and wait until the speaker has finished before we heckle him. Or, as a mark of a true champion, we could accept defeat with grace. Or that we recognize the limits to being a polite guest and would not abuse this temporary privilege with the insolence of spreading personal venom against a full-pledged member, especially when the cover of pretence is about to be exposed.

The rules of engagement in fostering a truly civil society can be very simple if only we can put our hearts and minds into understanding what it really means to be “civil” in a civil society. We must recognize that democracy could be messy and opinions and passions in the democratic tumult of competing ideas and values are oftentimes threatening to our personal feelings and self-interest. Sometimes, this makes us feel uncomfortable. But there’s nothing wrong to feel hurt or crossed because often it is necessary for things to change.

In creating a civil society, people usually make intemperate or even critical remarks about neighbours, politicians and civic leaders, media darlings and sports and entertainment heroes – or simply do very impolite things, like staging protests. But those who join the fray and work for the common good while remaining polite are those that impress us. Oftentimes, it is the most radical people who are the most respectful, and as a result, they’re also the most effective at making good things happen.

University of Toronto professor of philosophy Mark Kingwell offers us a robust definition of civility: “Civility, as I interpret it, still allows ample room for giving offence and making politically unpopular or even dangerous claims. But these must be claims that are offered as part of an ongoing dialogue of justification – that is, open to further assessment by interlocutors. They must be claims, in short, and not simply abuse or insults.”

We obviously need more than politeness to create a civil society. Although etiquette is not a bad place to start, sometimes the rules of etiquette are simply another means to control people. Civility is much deeper and important. Civility points to the qualities necessary to create a better society, a thriving democratic civilization where everyone feels connected and engaged.

The Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858, a series of seven debates that focused on slavery, still remains a standard of civility. As Abraham Lincoln said during the debate, “In times like the present, men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and eternity.”

Sometimes, it is ironic that we get a clearer understanding of what we could be by looking backward in time rather than forward.

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