What the %&$#&! Happened to Civility?


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What the blazes happened to civility? That's what the media seems to be pondering these days. Civility is the hot media buzzword at the moment. Each day's news comes to us rife with reports of the disintegration of civility and safety, an onslaught of mean-spirited impulse running amok, according to Daniel Goleman in his best seller, Emotional Intelligence. The news reflects back to us on a larger scale a creeping sense of emotions out of control in our own lives and in those of the people around us. No one is insulated; it touches all our lives in one way or another - television, movies, sports, our families, our co-workers, all the people we meet.

Sports has come under a great deal of media scrutiny recently, and no wonder. Our children's heroes are sports superstars who curse and swear in television interviews, who trash and taunt, dance and diss, finger-point and indulge in murderous free-for-alls, teaching little kids mockery and meanness rather than sportsmanship. That's not going to make them good citizens for the future. Even on the manicured lawns of Wimbledon you now find a Jeff Tarango staging an unprecedented walk-off in the middle of a match, and his wife smacking the umpire he'd been arguing with! It's no longer cool to be a good sport; you're considered square and soft.

And no wonder. What's happened to Jeff Tarango since that incident? A big fine, but he's been elevated to center court at every match he now plays because of his media value. "In your face" is the dominant attitude among competitors. According to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a 60 Minutes interview, "Sports is a step away from the rule of the jungle. And they're trying to move it back toward the jungle where the strong survive and misuse the weaker in any way they want. And that's really unfortunate for our whole system of values here in this country."

And TV...According to a study released in February 1996, violence on TV is sending the wrong message to our children, a message that says that they can get away with it. 73% of violence shown on television was not punished, and violence was shown as wrong less than 4% of the time. Is it any wonder that the mean-spirited impulse is running amok in our society? Is it any wonder that 1 in 4 teens - 1 in 2 in high-crime areas - did not feel safe in their own neighborhood? Is it any wonder almost 1/2 the teens surveyed in a Louis Harris & Associates poll of 2000 teen-agers, released in January '96, said they had changed their daily routine because of violence and crime. More than 7 in 10 teens in high-crime areas said gangs played a big part of daily life in their neighborhoods, and 2 in 3 said most neighborhood youngsters looked up to gang members - over half said belonging to a gang was "like having a family that will always be there."

They must have been listening to the politicians who espouse "family values" as the solution. It might be an eye-opener for the politicians to realize that even a murderous gang of thieves can look upon itself as a family and share its own set of values. Principles, not values, Stephen Covey tells us are the issue. The narrow scope of "family values" is not a synonym for the manners and civility, which are all-encompassing.

Is it any wonder that we're suffering from manners envy as one writer described our longing for a bygone civility that has suddenly made Jane Austin the hot scriptwriter for film and television? I hope that's the beginning of a trend, because film and television have a profound effect on our attitudes and behavior.

We're inundated by violence, profanity, and all manner of uncivilized acts. Social scientists have a plethora of explanations for the decline of civility. But, more important, what do we do about it? In computerese there is a term, GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. It's time to edit our lives, to control the garbage going in and eliminate the garbage going out. And, I'm not talking about curtailing First Amendment Rights or book burning. Freedom of speech is a very important principle in this country, one that should be protected. But we're not harming free speech if we stop rewarding the Jeff Tarangos and Deion Sanders of the world for their bad behavior. Take away their 15 minutes of fame and maybe we'll start send a different message to our kids. Turn off programs we find offensive, and maybe advertisers will start getting the message that we don't need the good guys like Pete Sampras dirtied up to make us more receptive to them as product pitchmen. It's time to remind advertisers that it's still true that "Civility costs nothing and buys everything," as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu said over a century ago.

Civility grows by leaps and bounds every time we practice it. It's somewhat like the geometric progression of that old shampoo commercial in which "she told two friends and they told two friends and they told..." and so on. We have so much to gain. It has to start somewhere, and the best place is right here and right now with you and with me. Our manners are under scrutiny every moment of every day that we're in company. And, we are judged accordingly. The first step we can take for civilization is to make sure we are not part of the whole problem. Ask not who should be civil to you; ask who you can be civil to.

I challenge each and every one of you to go out today and practice civility.

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