I can’t say I grew up in a time when civility reigned across the board. The Klan, segregation, organized labor against the companies, woman and child exploitation, and war were all part of the 1940s and 1950s. To say that civility is dying now, suddenly, in the midst of political mayhem and the internet is too easy. The people I lived around had a certain way of being. Our parents demanded that we be polite, respectful and aware of the troubles others were going through. And yet under the façade of the trees and flowers of the suburbs, great animosity flowed towards those considered “other”. I didn’t blink when everyone called our enemy Japs, or when some of our neighbors called second and third generation Germans “krauts.” Making people into a homogenous group with a hateful name kept us from seeing them as people. Even denying Jewish survivors the right to land on our shores wasn’t something we talked about. No one asked why this was so. It was all done very quietly, outside normal social discourse.
During desegregation, some of us saw grown women with children screaming at small children walking into their neighborhood and their schools. Some of them were Irish, slowly rising from past epithets that were thrown at them when they emigrated. And yet these children, born and raised American, were deemed a proper target. Hate speech was ripe in those times, and soon speech turned to murder. How can I compare those times to these?
I believe the difference is that incivility has grown to encompass a huge swath of Americans. When I was young it was always “them” who committed these atrocities, such as the murder of civil rights workers. It was inconceivable that thousands of people felt the same way. It was outlandish to believe that preachers in their churches said it was okay to hate and name-call and lie in wait for those who let their guard down in the wrong part of town. Middle-class people like me didn’t have a clue. We grew up with the teachings of Jesus—the sermons that instructed us on how to treat our fellow beings. I’ve written about my grandfathers—the union organizer and the business owner—and how they would raise their voices in disagreement, passionately, but have a drink and a game of cards afterward. There is a difference now. Hate speech has become a part of the culture, promulgated daily on cable television and the internet. Political discourse has devolved into brutish twitter exchanges with no intelligence visible, and certainly no attempt at conversation.
When Barack Obama ran for office, he was maligned, accused, and his opponents even mounted a campaign to prove he was not “one of us.” Amidst this, he said:
Civility also requires relearning how to disagree without being disagreeable. Surely you can question my policies without questioning my faith or, for that matter, my citizenship.
Surely, he said. But the political climate now dropped from the cooperative to the hateful. Gone were the days when Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy and Republican Senator Orin Hatch could craft legislation because they knew they were there to serve the people. When Kennedy died, Hatch talked about his constant efforts at bi-partisanship, and how he mourned the fact that it was dying. Bi-partisanship took civility. You couldn’t denigrate a man on the floor one day and then ask for his cooperation on the next. It took a building of relationships to make things happen. In the mid-nineties, with Republicans in control, Kennedy and Hatch created the CHIP act that has since provided health coverage to millions of needy kids. Right now, the government is trying to do away with programs like CHIP through any means possible. There is no mechanism to bring together those who need to cooperate because there is a lack of common civility—no longer common—and the financial impetus to cooperate. And that is where we stand now. And that is the example being shown daily to the American people. Cooperation is for wimps. It’s the last man standing, the bully in the school yard, that draws widespread attention.
Our job is to change that. As I wrote in my article “Overwhelming Grief in a Violent World,” we need to learn the art of Coherent Conversation. Be the one to begin. Be the one to approach the conversation with peace and good intentions. Be the one to listen politely and ask for the same in return. Be the one that notices the anger of the other person comes from fear—fear of losing something important to them. This conversation is essential to the life of our world. Time is running out. Van Jones puts it this way:
Civility isn’t just some optional value in a multicultural, multistate democratic republic.
Civility is the key to civilization.