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Lost Art of Civility

By age sixteen, George Washington had copied out by hand, 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation.  They are based on a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595.  Civility The first rule is: “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.” Increasingly, today, writers and bloggers lament the lost art of civility as evidenced by rude behavior, disrespectful comments, and personal attacks. Common examples cited are when tennis great Serena Williams made menacing moves and went on a tirade against a judge who called a foot fault at a critical time in her championship match in 2009 at the US Open. Then, during the 2009 MTV awards, rapper Kanye West stormed the stage to protest Taylor Swift’s award for best female video. West said she didn’t deserve the award, and that it belonged to her competitor Beyonce Knowles, who later in the evening won for Video of the Year. Politicians are known for their insensitive remarks including congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC) who screamed, “you lie” on the floor of the House of Representatives during President Obama’s speech to both houses of Congress on September 8, 2010. Another is Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) who called a female adviser to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke a "K Street whore" during a radio interview. While both apologized for their disrespectful remarks, that didn’t stop some radio and television commentators from harping on the spoken words night after night, and there’s the “rub.”

Talk radio and television share a lot of the blame for the lack of civility in society. There are some personalities who play “I gotcha” games on their shows and repeat the unwise comments adnauseam, and they don’t spend any time on the apology or moral lesson to be learned. Some commentators personally attack other commentators who do not share their political views. It often seems the attack is for the sake of attacking – nothing more, nothing less. The lesson that is learned by such behavior is that it’s acceptable to attack the other side; even go after someone on a personal level. What ever happened to disagreeing without being disagreeable?

A recent poll by the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College and Zogby International found that the majority of Americans say they are “turned off” when politics become “rude and nasty,” and 95 percent say civility in politics is important for a healthy democracy. In June 2010 Lanny Davis, who served as an aide in the Clinton White House, wrote letters on behalf of the Civility Project asking the 585 elected officials to sign a civility pledge. The letters, personalized and sent directly to each of the offices, asked officials to commit to this pledge: “I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior. I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them. I will stand against incivility when I see it.” At the time only one lawmaker -- Representative Frank R. Wolf, (R-VA) -- had signed. This noble effort to alter the tenor of discourse in Congress and political campaigns only reminds us of the lack of principles of those who should serve the public interest.

As a college professor, I am encouraged by the recent efforts of two universities -- the University of St. Thomas and Rutgers University -- to raise the nature of debate by starting multifaceted efforts to study and promote the concept of civil discourse. St. Thomas  already has $1 million of the $3.5 million it plans to raise to support an Endowed Chair in Civil Discourse. It also started a pilot, co-curricular program for first-year students that champions civility; is proposing a civil-discourse requirement for graduation; and has created an annual Public Discourse Lecture Series dealing with civility. At Rutgers, the Project Civility is aimed at discussing on campus the "ongoing inquiry about the nature of true respect for others."

One June 22, 2010, Weber Shandwick, Powell Tate and KRC Research released new research that explores the state of civility in America. The survey asked 1,000 American adults to express their views about the tone and level of civility in government and traditional and social media. Here are some of the results: (1) two in three respondents believe civility is a major problem while three in four believe the problem has gotten worse; (2) three in four said the financial crisis and recession made the level of civility in America worse; (3) just one in four expect civility to improve while one in three think it will get worse; (4) not surprisingly, the government and politics were identified as having the least civil discourse and a majority characterized America’s high schools, talk radio, and Hollywood celebrities as uncivil.

Civil discourse was an important value to our founding fathers. Perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best:  There can be no high civility without a deep morality.”