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Where has civility gone?

Many have withdrawn from engaging in the political process, so central to democracy

Saxtons River

Does anyone still remember, as I do, a time when people were courteous and respectful toward one another?

When they bothered to respond to phone messages and personal or professional letters or to render thanks for gifts and good deeds?

When sexual innuendo was off limits and when behavioral boundaries prevailed, no matter what someone really thought?

Where has that kind of civility gone, I wonder?

Nothing reveals how seriously eroded civility has become more than Donald Trump’s atrocious tweets, his vicious slurs and childish insults, his mockery, and even his lies. (It’s hard to be untruthful to people you respect.)

His followers are no better. Just take a look at the hateful comments spewed on social media, where it’s possible to behave despicably without having to show your face or to take responsibility for your words.

* * *

I’ve had my own experiences with online viciousness.

Recently, I stopped posting to one blog site because of the comments I was receiving, which ranged from the mild rebuke “Get over it!” to the more specific suggestion that I “need to get laid.”

It’s not that I can’t take the heat as a writer when people disagree with me. There’s nothing I enjoy more than invigorating discourse and a good argument grounded in facts and logic.

I just ask that it be offered in an adult fashion — which is to say, respectfully.

Even Hillary Clinton once said when someone was unkind to her during a debate, “That hurts my feelings.” And as I told the editor of the blog I was leaving, no one pays me to suffer fools gladly.

* * *

Public-opinion polls repeatedly show that Americans are concerned about the deepening erosion of civility whether in government, business, education, or media. (Ironically, even Mike Pence, the GOP nominee for vice president, noted once that “[w]e cannot do democracy without a heavy dose of civility.”)

Many have withdrawn from engaging in the political process — so central to democracy — because of it. Others have left jobs, stopped patronizing certain businesses, or pulled their kids out of schools.

One culprit in the demise of civility is information technology. As Albert Einstein once noted in another context, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

That notion becomes credible with the rapid rise of cyberbullying and the disturbing messages posted by white-supremacist and anti-Semitic groups during this election.

* * *

In a 2012 blog post to Psychology Today, Ray Williams, a concerned professional, revealed that the Johns Hopkins Civility Initiative had found an “onslaught of rude, bullying and uncivil behavior.” That phenomenon, intensified by the constant availability of the Internet and social networking sites, “adds to the stress people are already feeling,” he wrote.

Williams also cited Donald Trump’s TV show, The Apprentice, “where people eagerly await Trump’s now-famous edict — ‘You’re fired!’ — as some kind of pleasure.”

In a similar post the same year, psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell also referred to Trump’s TV show and others that, like Survivor, “highlight back-stabbing behavior as admirable and winning qualities.”

Children, she added, “are exposed to rudeness, vulgarity, and violence that would be unthinkable in previous generations.”

* * *

Civility isn’t complex or difficult. The dictionary defines it as “politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech.” It’s associated with good manners, graciousness, and consideration.

It is also, as Price-Mitchell wrote, “an obligation to act in ways that honor that [definition]. It requires us to treat others with decency, regardless of our differences. It demands restraint and an ability to put the interests of the common good above self-interests.”

That doesn’t seem like too much to ask. And the rewards of civility are obvious and beneficial, at both the individual and societal level.

Why have we been so willing to give it up?

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Originally published in The Commons issue #375 (Wednesday, September 21, 2016). This story appeared on page D1.

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