One night recently I went to the top floor of the local university library. The sign below is next to the elevators. Beside this sign there is a huge placard as you come off the elevator that repeats the rules for using the area.
I go here when I really need quiet and to think. However, as you can well guess, some people think the rules do not apply to them. While I was there I called people out twice.
Alas, before I get too high and mighty (that’s coming), I realize I have my own blind areas. But, basic civility would be nice in our society. We seem to have lost it, if we ever had it.
This experience in a library was annoying, but not that big a deal when compared to widespread rudeness in more important venues. The reason this little skirmish has become more pronounced in my mind is that the I think my senses are heightened to rudeness after the recent American election season and its aftermath. As a news and poltics junkie, I have seen our public discourse filled with out-of-the-ordinary base statements from political leaders, protesters and would-be amateur pundits on social media.
.I really don’t have high expectations from politicians and protesters when they open their mouths, but the things emanating from them have reached a new low. Rock bottom does indeed have a basement.
If you follow the news at all you are aware of the profanity, ad hominem attacks and even physical violence of political opponents and of youthful protesters and celebrities upset about the outcome of the vote in November.
Discourtesy and ill behavior in our society has not been limited to politics. My little library excursion example is indicative of a certain lack of courtesy on the American university campus. The squelching of dissent has led to a Stalinistic atmosphere. Most recently I wrote about a confrontation I had with a student over her discomfort with my viewing choices in a public location at my local school. The girl took issue with a scene from a classic movie which I saw as history and she observed to be insulting. She got heated right away without any degree of politeness and shrilly demanded that I turn off what I was watching.
In addition, during warmer months on campus I have been subjected to more nonverbal effrontery. I have come close to being pummeled by passing skateboarders who speed by out of control, with little thought for the mass of pedestrians on the sidewalk. Once one of these sidewalk NASCAR wannabes silently came up from behind me and without any regard for personal space engineered a wild hop on their board in a noisy fashion. It scared the daylights out of me.
The causes of this lowering of respectful behavior towards our fellow humans are too numerous to expound on here. However, I think Rev. J. Vernon McGee hit on something decades ago when he was discussing a passage from the Bible. In the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is having a debate with the religious leaders of his day over the importance of a rite involving the washing of hands.
Jesus said to these leaders and His followers:
“Listen,” he said, “and try to understand. “It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth.”
Jesus’s disciples asked him to explain what He meant by this statement.
“Don’t you understand yet?” Jesus asked. “Anything you eat passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer. But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you.”
McGee said of Jesus’s words,”We are seeing that working out in our contemporary society today. We’ve come to a period of what is known a ‘New Morality’. We’ve reached the day that (the prophet) Isaiah talked about. He said the day is coming when they’ll call evil good and good evil. And they’re doing that today.”
Decades ago McGee decried the dropping of biblical standards for “freedom”.
“The lid has been taken off and man today can express what’s in his heart. What comes out? New morality? No, same old thing. Evil thoughts. Murders. Adulteries. We hear a good amount about sex today. That’s what you would expect. Fornications. Theft. False witness. Blasphemies. Great day of freedom. But my friends, if you don’t put the lid on the bucket you have opened really a Pandora’s Box and we’re in trouble.”
McGee even in his time called for some controls on mankind’s behavior.
“Man has to be controlled,” he said. “Man is the most vicious animal on this earth and yet we put other animals in cages. And yet we’re talking today ‘man must be free to do his thing’. And here’s what he’ll do. It’s not new morality at all. Our Lord said this sort of thing was evil and these things defile a man.”
The Internet did not even exist as a public tool in McGee’s day, but he still blasted the media and schools for pushing immorality on to youth.
“These are the things that are defiling young people and yet it is all being done in the high, lofty-sounding terminology of ‘freedom of speech’ and that today ‘we must express ourselves. And this is the way we are doing it.The thing that is in the heart is now coming out.”
Solutions to the problem of incivility are not easy. As McGee noted, man does not want to be controlled. This was easy to see in the 60s, one of the most revolutionary decades in American history.
Stephen Sills wrote “For What It’s Worth” after a protest in 1966 in Hollywood. Residents were upset at the late night congestion caused by the numerous young folks who flooded the Sunset Strip area to hit the clubs and bars. So when the government put their foot down and enacted ordinances to curtail their outlandish behavior, the youth protest. This protest became civil unrest.The song opens this way:
“There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop
Children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down (?)”
What Sills complained about in his lyrics is that the authorities were able to tell him and his fellow “children” (how apropos) what to do for the sake of others who were affected by their actions. But I don’t see his complaint as valid. If we are going to live in a civil society, we must have some common standards of decency for the sake of all. With freedom comes responsibility to others.
When human beings don’t voluntarily submit to some sort of standards of good behavior, then I am afraid they must be provided with incentives, even negative ones. I once heard of a new prison warden who asked an aide,”How much power do I have in this prison?” He was told that he had what amounted to dictatorial powers. When he heard this, the warden issued a fiat that there would be no profanity allowed in his prison. I imagine any rule breaking was punished. Over time the enforced manners resulted in a sea change of positive behavior in this jail.
Despite a huge swing toward incivility, I’m not asking for a fascist state to control all words and actions in America. I am not in favor of, for example, extreme self restraint of the media as new White House adviser Steve Bannon suggested when he said that it should “keep its mouth shut.” The Founding Fathers allowed for a free press as a watchdog on corrupt government. In our current society, however, the more recognized media companies have tended to be selective about which party’s corruption to expose.
This tendency of the press to shut down points of view it does not agree with has resulted in a media civil war. The battle has flooded over to the Internet and its social media sites, where every Tom, Dick and Harriet can have a say. Unfortunately, as I noted at the beginning of this essay, these interactions on Facebook, Twitter and other sites are filled with meanspirited, cowardly and selfish behavior.
The consequence of all this online heat has been the fracturing of relationships. During a concise and balanced discussion on media bias on CNN this week Christiane Amanpour said,”We should be able to have a huge variety of views without calling each other and treating each other as enemies.” What Amanpour says should apply not only to media types, but to we rubes on social media and individual friends, individuals and even strangers as well.
All I am asking for is some heart change that leads to obeying the laws, rules and principles developed by those who went before us to create a civil society. In order for that to happen we are going to have to quit being so self absorbed and start thinking about the welfare of others.
In addition to looking within for refinement, there are some things we can do. We can learn to listen. We can learn to listen ro understand. We can learn how to debate logically and ethically. We can begin each interaction with goodwill. We can be kind. We can stop assuming that those with whom we disagree are inherently evil, bigoted, and criminal.
There are those who think that there are more important things than civility. Vann R. Newkirk II in a post in The Atlantic on December 5, 2016 notes that in matters such as racism that shaming can be an effective tool toward pushing whites in America toward confronting their bias. He writes:
Civility is not the highest moral imperative—especially in response to perceived injustices—nor is hand-holding and guiding reluctant people to confront their bigotry gently. American history is full of fights, including the ongoing struggle for civil rights, that have been as fierce as they are ultimately . Civility is overrated.
With the extremely marginalized, I can see Mann’s point. I don’t imagine a Jewish politician from 1930s Germany getting anywhere in persuading a Nazi counterpart to drop their racially stained views. Sometimes there is no other resort than war.
But as General Sherman said,”War is hell.” Those “ongoing fights” Newkirk speaks of were quite costly to America and Americans at times. Real change in these United States has only come it seems from either such conflicts or from persuasion. It would seem to me that persuasion should be attempted at all times until there is no other recourse because of the insanely damaging effects of war.
Was war necessary to free the slaves in the United States? Perhaps. But there were some who believed that America would eventually be persuaded to ditch slavery. Instead, the opponents opted for civil war. After the war, the winners eventually made a political bargain to give control back to the losers. These people instituted Jim Crow, which carried racism over for almost another century. Thus, before we go to war it would seem to me that a long-term strategy for dealing with its effects be developed.
What is telling is that Mann believes there are other goals in argument besides persuasion. He writes:
Sometimes the goal of argument is to vent. Sometimes it is to simply tell the truth. Sometimes it’s just to loudly proclaim one’s own humanity.
Mr. Mann and I could have a civil debate on such a statement. I would take the position that shouting is not an appropriate method of argument, at least from an Aristotlian perspective. Furthermore, those “telling the truth” may think they are, but like us all these folks are subject to their own limitations. What they believe to be the truth may indeed not be.
What Mann’s discussion of the goals of argument has done for me, though, and why his comments above are telling is that it explains why there was such profanity and base statements coming from speakers at the recent Women’s March. Those speakers represent a point of view which says that their opponents will not listen to reasoned argument. Only stigmatizing the opposition will do. My one complaint of this approach is that I am doubtful that Madonna or Ashley Judd had attempted accepted modes of persuasion prior to their profane rants.
Even though I don’t agree with many of the points in Mann’s article, it is well supported with academic research and nods to the arguments of opponents. That kind of argumentation I can respect. Thus, it makes his piece well worth the read.
Abhorrent perspectives like racism are a matter of the heart. I am afraid there will always be people with evil views. Where it gets dicey for all of us is when these folks begin to act on their beliefs. So there must be some control of evil.
If we don’t transform ourselves, I am fearful that the outcry will be so great that we could lose our hard-won freedoms. If we don’t do this as individuals on a voluntary basis, then I am afraid others with powerful institutions behind them will MAKE us behave.
When they do they won’t be bringing lollipops to persuade us; they’l be sporting hammers.