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Can America Ever Regain Its Civility?

Why We Have Lost Our Way as a Moral Society

I've never seen the level of divisiveness in America as I have for the past decade. While I have blogged about the decline of civility in America before, nothing has changed, and it has gotten much worse, so I decided to revisit the issue.

Incivility has been getting worse for many years. Just think about what’s happened in our country these past few years. We’ve seen skirmishes break out in our streets and on planes between people lacking the ability to exercise self-control over their behavior. Senseless violence no longer shocks our conscience; it has become part of daily life in America.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said that between January 1 to July 1, 2021, it had received 3,509 unruly passenger reports. The Transportation Administration (TSA) says inflight disturbances have risen from two incidents per 1 million screened in 2019 to 12 per 1 million in 2021, and the numbers keep increasing. To say that these incidents reflect the decline of civility in America is a gross understatement.

Criminals have been using the benign neglect approach to shoplifters by authorities to increase their efforts to rob stores and innocent bystanders. Taken to an extreme, these “smash and grab” thefts no longer seem to be of any concern to the authorities. I guess it’s easier to not deal with them rather than tackling controversial issues.

California Scheming

Proposition 47 in California added Penal Code section 459.5 to create a new misdemeanor offense called “shoplifting.” According to the code, a person has committed the crime of shoplifting if the shoplifter steals items or property valuing up to $950.

Any other entry into a commercial establishment with intent to commit larceny is burglary, a felony. No person charged with shoplifting may also be charged with burglary or theft of the same property. It’s a misdemeanor and of lesser consequence. Thus, the authorities look the other way. It’s just not important enough to deal with shoplifters, at least in California. In California, these offenses are rarely prosecuted if the taking is less than $950.

Go into stores like CVS, Walgreens, or Target in S.F. and you will see just about every pharmaceutical item behind closed glass cases. I’ve seen personal hygiene items and even clothing locked up. To gain access, you must find a store clerk with the magic key. The point is if we can’t trust each other, then how will we ever regain our civility?

Why won’t store employees do anything about this theft? Because they don’t want to take the risk. I doubt many would, knowing that a Rite Aid employee was murdered after trying to stop two thieves. Moreover, a confrontation within the store risks harming not only store staff but also customers, so employees are almost certainly instructed by their managers to do nothing.

Defining Civility

The Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary defines civility as polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior. Linda Fisher Thornton, a leading voice in ethical leadership, suggests that “these behaviors are the ones we use when we treat others with care,” thereby linking civility with ethical behavior through The Golden Rule: Treat others the way we would wish to be treated.

Civility is about more than just politeness. It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening beyond one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. Indeed, civility represents a long tradition of moral virtues essential to democracy. Virtues like empathy, humility, integrity, honesty, and respect for others are ideals of democratic engagement. Without civility, a society can morph into accusatory, offensive verbal attacks on one another which is the way things have been headed in the U.S. for years.

Civility represents the quality of our behavior with others in our communities. It signals who we are and what we value. Since the essence of ethics lies in how we are with others, civility and ethics are intricately linked.

Civility cultivates a civic code of decency. It requires us to discipline our impulses for the sake of others. It demands we free ourselves from self-absorption. By putting ethics into practice in our day-to-day encounters, civility is that moral glue without which we are lost as a society.

For years, “incivility” has been something we associate with minor social infractions or foul language. However, this doesn’t begin to address the enormity of the problem. Civility

Civility in Government

Those in government do not seem to have the stomach to deal with these issues. Some fear upsetting one group or another with divergent views on social and political issues. What’s worse, they could be “cancelled” if their actions affect a group with political influence, or simply the desire to be combative. Let’s face it, it’s easier to deal with problems other than civility, in part because many in Congress lack the civility needed to make a difference.

I haven’t even addressed the incivility on January 6, 2021, when protesters stormed Congress in wake of the 2020 Presidential election vote. And now we see incivility in treating demonstrators with disdain whether they are on one side or the other in the Israeli-Palestinian war. It is no longer enough to simply express your opinion when you differ from a prevailing view; now one group seems to be in the face of another, or worse. Those who yell the loudest seem to win the day.

Who is to Blame?

A poll by the American Bar Association (ABA) released on April 23, 2023, reports that the vast majority of Americans believe society is less civil than it was a decade ago, and they blame social media and public officials for that decline. Fully 85% of the 1,000 respondents said that civility had declined during that time. 

Who should we blame for the decline in civility? There is enough blame to go around, but I will focus on the primary culprits. The ABA survey reports that 34% of those polled said family and friends should hold the primary responsibility for improving civility in society, while 27% said that responsibility should fall to public officials. And 90% of respondents said parents and families are most responsible for instilling civility in children, followed by schools at 6%. This result is surprising. What should a school do if not to foster good behavior, concern for others, kindness and empathy? We have clearly lost our way in that regard.

What Does the Future Hold?

We are only in control of our own actions. However, our behavior can influence others in a positive way. We need to model civil behavior, so our kids learn how to behave in the classroom and at home.

I wish I could say 2024 will be better on these and other issues and bring happiness to Americans. However, call me a cynic but I expect things to get worse before they get better. Most parents just don’t care, perhaps because their own behavior is uncivil, or they choose not to engage with their children on the negatives of social media. We can’t wish away the problem. The longer we wait to tackle incivility in all its forms, the worse things get. I am reluctant to think about how life will be in America in 2024.

I wish all my readers a happy, healthy holiday season. I still believe we can right the ship. However, before you can solve a problem, you must first recognize it exists. I will do what I can to spread the word about civility and ethical behavior and hope you will do so as well.

My gift to you as we move into 2024 is a free copy of my book for those who want it. The book is titled, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. Here is a more about the book. Please send an email to me at: [email protected] to request your free copy and provide your mailing address.

If you live outside America, I can't provide a free copy because postage and handling is about $20. The book can be purchased on Amazon for $9.95 for a limited time.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on November 29, 2023. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: Follow him on LinkedIn at: Follow him on Facebook at: and on Twitter at: