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Saving Civility

Updated on October 30, 2018
PatriciaTL profile image

Patricia is a former English teacher who hoped to pass her love of writing, literature, poetry,and (gasp!) kind behavior on to her students.

Is it that difficult to BE NICE?

When I taught middle school English, it didn't take me long to realize that not much teaching- or learning- could take place if student behavior was, to put it nicely, sub-standard. So I posted signs that stated "Be Nice" on the walls of my classroom and explained that if any of my students were rude, belittling, disrespectful, or cruel (in other words, NOT NICE) to anyone: other classmates, teachers, custodians, etc., they would be expected to stand up and read the signs aloud. Believe it or not, very few students found themselves in the position of having to read those signs.

When I moved up to the high school, several of my former students asked where the Be Nice signs were. When I replied that I thought that high school students were mature enough not to need the signs, they countered, "You had better put them up." So I did. A few weeks later, I was sitting in the faculty room when I overheard two teachers discussing how amusing it was to see Be Nice signs on the walls of the classroom that was used for after-school detention. Attempting to respond nicely (they had no idea that it was my room to which they were referring), I piped up,"You should try it sometime. It works."

Where Have All The Adults Gone?

In the last few years, it has often seemed like human behavior has sunk to unprecedented depths. Recently, I was perusing the cereal aisle in a local grocery store when a middle-aged man was in such a hurry to get past me that his shopping cart literally banged into mine. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that he didn't have the courtesy to mumble,"Sorry," or something equally as easy to say. I was so shocked that I turned to a woman who was shopping close by and said, "Did you see what that guy just did?" She, too, was appalled by his behavior. With that, the man turned around, said, "Whatever," and continued to look at the other woman and me like we had done something wrong.

Several weeks ago, I walked into the local casino as I often do to meet friends for dinner. A drawing was scheduled for 7:00 that evening; in order to be in the running, you have to register your casino card in one of the slot machines before 6:45. Since it was 6:40 when I entered the casino, I headed for the first empty slot machine. As I approached the machine, a man who was playing the machine next to it jumped up and literally started screaming at me. He was so incensed that I thought he might hit me. It took me a few seconds to realize that he was yelling something like,"Can't you see there's twenty dollars in there?" It turned out that he was saving the machine for his wife, who was nowhere to be seen. All of a sudden a security guard appeared (thank heavens) and led me away from the man. It wasn't enough that I had been verbally assaulted, though. Several more security guards showed up, and, despite the fact that I clearly explained what had occurred, I was treated as though I bore some responsibility for the altercation. When I said that I had been afraid the man was going to hit me, one of the guards replied,"Well, he didn't. We have it on tape." I asked whether or not they had an audiotape version of the incident; there was no reply. There was also no reply when I noted that none of my students had ever treated me so disrespectfully. Finally, I was pretty much told to "move along" despite the fact that the rude man (who by now had been joined by his wife) continued to sit at the same slot machine. It seemed that the moral of that story was abuse/rude behavior is acceptable as long as it's verbal.

And the Award a for the Least Civility Goes To...

At this point, I would be remiss if I did not address the elephant (and the donkey) in the room. Yes, in the World of 2018, the lack of civility in the political spectrum is mind-boggling, to say the least...and I include both of the major political parties in that observation. The name-calling, character assassination, and downright cruelty that seems to have pervaded politics is disgusting. Just think of some of the ads for the midterm elections: how many of the candidates actually have the strength of character to discuss what they would do for their constituents rather than choosing to verbally malign their opponents? Sadly, it seems that much of the general public has bought into these tactics. Just look at Facebook: you can't help but see all the cruel comments that so many people seem to feel is the proper way to support their candidates/ party. Recently, a gubernatorial candidate was featured in a TV ad stating that he would stomp on his opponent with golf shoes. (Not his exact words, but you get the point.) Several candidates who are running for various offices from the other party continue to claim that their opponents will take away health care for pre-existing conditions. (And they know that... how?) I could go on and on with examples of non-civility in political ads, but I am certain that many people would respond with something like, "Well, isn't that the name of the game?" Maybe that's the problem. Politics should not be any kind of game.

Speaking of politics... Think back to the recent Brett Kavanaugh hearings. I cannot recall ever having seen anything so appalling. Again, both sides of the political spectrum share the blame on this one. As far as most of the Democrats were concerned, this guy was guilty even before he had even opened his mouth to speak. Why? 1) Because of the nature of the (unproven) charges and 2) Because he was a Rebublican. As for the Republicans, many of them were less concerned about learning what actually had occurred than they were about the fact that he was one of them. Enough said. Emotions were running so high that a realistic view of the situation was impossible, since the many of the politicians had made up their minds before the hearing had begun; those decisions, of course (at least the great majority of them) had been made along party lines. The vitriol that resulted had very little to do with civility except to emphasize the dire need for its return.

Speaking of politics...Tune into one of the late night talk shows if you want to hear freedom of speech taken to new levels. I used to enjoy watching many of the guests who appeared on these shows, but in the last couple of years, at least, some of the hosts have made politics the focus of their monologues. Some of these monologues are so brutally cruel that I couldn't even call these guys political pundits since they come through (at least to me) as bitter, angry men who have chosen to use their positions (which should be that of entertainers) as political venues.

Freedom of What?

So... is this what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States? Back then, of course, The Media was relatively nonexistent, so they had no clue as to what might occur when radio, television, and the oxymoron known as social media entered the scene. Would they be impressed by the cruelty and vitriol that increasingly punctuate the free speech of the twenty-first century? I for one would feel proud to be part of a civil political discussion involving members of both parties that doesn't degenerate into name-calling.

It seems that in our vigor to preserve the right of freedom of speech (which, of course, is absolutely necessary to preserve democracy), we have lost sight of something that is not a right but a choice: civility. Perhaps we, as a free society made up of diverse individuals, need to ask ourselves these questions before we speak and/or react to anything: 1) Is it moral? 2) Is it ethical? and 3) Is it indicative of who I want to be?

If we can't quite manage to Be Nice all of the time, at least we can agree to to Be Civil.


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