The new normal: A lack of civility

George Washington at the Battle of Princeton, 1779. Image from U.S. Army Center of Military History.

George Washington at the Battle of Princeton, 1779. Image from U.S. Army Center of Military History.

As we commemorate Presidents’ Day this week, it’s a good time to take a glimpse of the man George Washington was destined to become by dusting off his Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation. Written by our first president as a teenager, the document is still relevant today (although we hope we won’t have to resort to “Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks … if it be upon the Cloths of your Companions” too often).

More than mere etiquette, these maxims are lessons in character building, describing the qualities that children need to learn — and adults need to practice.

The father of our country understood that that boorish behavior has no place in a civilized society. To our great detriment, the standards, morals, etiquette, courtesy and politeness he embodied and exemplified have been eschewed in modern society. We live in an informal culture with fewer social rules. Somewhere along the line we seem to have lost respect for others and even the rule of law. Compassion and decency, too, have suffered a sharp decline.

Incivility has become a pervasive part of our culture as we watch television shows where more words are bleeped out than left in, “road rage” has become part of our lexicon, sports figures feel free to behave badly (and parents are emboldened to scream obscenities at volunteer coaches), workplace violence no longer makes the front page, teachers and schools are routinely sued by students and parents asserting their “rights,” and shouting over your opponent replaces honest dialogue.

Now add anonymity and the ability to comment at will to the mix, and things become really volatile. Hiding behind a cyber wall means people don’t really have to talk with each other as much as talk at each other. And the veil of anonymity provides additional cover for the unscrupulous (and cowardly) as they take rude pleasure in insulting, abusing and otherwise offending their target.

Of course, kids model their behavior on what they see, so it’s hard to expect children and teens to stop bullying each other when adults are leading by example.

Civility, it seems, is on life support. In a me-me-me society, so many people have simply forgotten how to show respect and compassion for others. Society was built on a mutual concern for your friends, families and neighbors but when concern turns to an expectation of the worst, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. On the other hand, when everyone seems to be out for only his or her own “rights,” it’s easy to stop caring about others.

And of course, all this trickles down to (or perhaps trickles up from) politics. Many simply check their inhibitions, either at the digital door or face to face, as they feel free to engage in the politics of personal destruction instead of an intellectually honest debate.

The erosion of civility in modern life is and should be a concern for many Americans, because lack of respect for others, bullying behavior and plain old bad manners have caused many to tune out, turn off and turn away from government and politics. They are disgusted by politicians who are at each other’s throats and have forgotten why they are there in the first place. Indeed, bullying has become a much more common and public political weapon in the last few years.

So when someone expresses a belief that is immediately shot down, stridently insulted or received with overt hostility, he clams up and learns that it isn’t worth the pain and suffering to voice an opinion.

The worst part of this is that it isn’t the government or a court taking away our voice, it is us censoring ourselves because we choose not to be made uncomfortable.

Incivility leading to strategic bullying is insidious and dangerous. It mutes dissension and stops qualified candidates from running for office, effectively stifling the freedom of speech and boiling down government to a one-party system.

We should, on both sides of the aisle, be able to disagree without demonizing, debate without demeaning, and discuss without degrading. We should be able to question another viewpoint without questioning — or being questioned about — motive.

One way to bring civility back is through personal responsibility. We may not be able to change things alone, but we can make a difference in our own lives and in those whose lives we touch. After all, while we may not be able to always control what happens to us, we can certainly control how we respond.

The Bible actually offers the best solution of all: “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.”

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Susan Dench

About Susan Dench

Susan Dench is the founder and president of the fast-growing non-profit, non-partisan Informed Women's Network. Recognizing that many women are tired of "politics as usual," Susan decided to take action and develop strategies that are innovating the way women and politics intersect, nurturing and encouraging women in fun, energetic gatherings where views can be expressed in a supportive environment and then translated into practical solutions that produce results.