The American Uncivil Wars
How crude, rude and obnoxious behavior has replaced good manners and why that hurts our politics and culture
"You cannot have a complex society in which you do not hear the other party, the antagonist," explains Marty. "If you're just doing a monologue, or just hanging out with your crowd, it's impossible to sustain a society, and if there is to be any justice, it has to come through a conversation of different interests and different wills. Incivility says, 'I'm right, you have no hearing; I'm going to do the talking; I'm going to shout you down.'"
Ironically, definition presents a first obstacle to solving the problem. The word civility is derived from the Latin civis, or citizen, and is also foreshadowed in the word civitas, or the art of government. It can mean, among other things, good breeding, politeness, consideration or courtesy but may also refer to a "polite act or utterance," according to Webster's. But postmodernism makes hash of such definitions. When few people can agree on a common set of behaviors or values, civility can be seen as both a code word for right-wing Christian values and a stalking horse for left-wing multiculturalism, the former an antiabortion agenda, the latter a pro-diversity platform. But in the best of worlds, as Marty suggests, civility should be nonpartisan. It should be the glue holding dialogue together. "The alternative to civility is first incivility," he states, "and then war."
That message is dire, but it seems to be taking root. Convinced that the country's coarseness has gone far enough, people of different economic backgrounds, ethnicities, sexes and ideological persuasions, along with institutions as varied as schools, state bar associations, churches and businesses, have begun to take the first tentative steps to reverse the trend. They have their work cut out for them.
SCHOOLS From one end of the country to the other, parents and teachers complain of the lack of civility among children and the disrespect they show their elders. The problem cuts across all class and racial lines. In the recent survey of educators by the American Association of School Administrators, the teaching of the golden rule--treat others as you want to be treated--was found to be an urgent necessity.
"No Rules," reads a decal on the back window of a car parked at Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery, student population of 1,758, where, a handful of seniors agree, it is far too late to learn respect for one another. At the school's entrance, a statue of Lee, the Confederate general and quintessential Southern gentleman, presides over a teenage brawl that might be a microcosm of the nation as a whole.
At this racially mixed school in a middle-class neighborhood, getting by means getting mean. Students generally don't open doors or speak to people they don't know. In the hallways, it's shove or be shoved. "If you're standing in the hallway, and someone's coming, if they want to come your way, you better move," explains Cindy Roy, a senior. "Because if you don't, they're just going to take you down and keep on going."
Underlying this attitude toward rudeness, unspoken but universally acknowledged, is a nervousness about violence. Rumor has it that some girls carry knives in their hair and some boys have guns. Recent metal detector tests have not turned up ample evidence of such weapons, says guidance counselor Carole Mackin, but students at Robert E. Lee remain cautious just the same.