THE BLOG

Civility Isn't for Sissies

09/25/2012 05:52 pm ET | Updated Nov 25, 2012
  • Susan Zakin Author, 'Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement' and 'In Katrina's Wake: Portraits of Loss from an Unnatural Disaster'

Author's Note: I thought this was the blandest column I'd ever written, but when it was published recently in the Arizona Daily Star, it received 90 comments. Most were from right-wingers who attacked me because 1) I was in Starbuck's and therefore "part of the one percent" (full disclosure: I had actually come to buy a bagel at Einstein's, but they share a space, and I only wish I were a one-percenter); and 2) that I didn't believe in freedom of speech (I do; that's the whole point), and 3) that I felt sad about Gabby Giffords' shooting, so I guess that made me one of those despised "liberals." Oh, yes, and for stereotyping young men in heavy metal T-shirts. The most disturbing thing was that one of them found an old address of mine from a CV that I'd forgotten was on the Internet and published it in the Star's comments section. I had to make a frantic Sunday night call to a friend who works at the paper to get it removed. I hope the people living in that apartment don't receive any unwanted visitors.

I guess these readers missed the point about the whole civility thing. This was a wake-up call to me about the anger that's out there, and I believe it's directly related to Arizona's dire economic circumstances. I send my appreciation to the many good people out there who are struggling in this economy. I see you every day, and I'm one of you. This strengthened my resolve to document your stories.

***

I was sitting at a Starbucks in Tucson when suddenly I felt my heart beating faster than normal. It wasn't the caffeine. I had looked up from my iPhone and noticed two young men with buzz cuts, heavy-metal T-shirts, and backpacks. Something about their posture, slouching but with a coiled energy, made me think they were angry. I wondered what was in their backpacks. I wondered if I was safe.

I had worried about getting mugged or having my house broken into, but I had never before worried about a random act of violence. Like many Tucsonans, I cried when former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords walked onto the stage at the Democratic convention last month. I hadn't expected to. I thought I had gotten over the shock that followed her shooting by a young man whose alienation made him blind to the humanity of others. But I hadn't, and I suspect that we -- not only people in Tucson, but also people throughout America -- continue to wonder about the nexus of politics, stress and the human soul.

If anything good comes out of the events of Jan. 8, 2011, it will be the discussion of civility. Initially, I'll admit I was dubious. As a reporter, I've been subjected to years of carefully crafted sound bites designed to gloss over the truth, or subvert it. I enjoy watching Bill Maher, and I doubted that civility was the first word that would come to anyone's mind about his barbed commentaries, or, frankly, mine, especially when I was in my roaring 20s (and 30s). I thought of civility as ladies drinking tea and making small talk.

After I watched both political conventions, and saw the news that followed them, particularly the riots and murder in Libya over two culture's vastly different ideas about reverence and free speech, finding a definition of civility began to seem important.

The root of the word civility is the Greek word civis, the city. According to P.M. Forni, a professor of Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University, and founder of the Civility Project:

The etymology of 'civility' rests in one of the Latin words for 'city' -- not the city of mortar and stone but the city of flesh and blood, the body politic, the state, the community. The word is 'civitas,' which is the same word that gives us 'civilization.'

In the 14th century, the word civility became more individualized, taking on the meaning "status of a citizen." Civil behavior was understood as that which is proper to a citizen.

The Founding Fathers drew on historic notions of civility. While most of these men were well-read in the classics, there were also lessons early in life. By age 16, George Washington had copied by hand, "110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation," a set of dos and don'ts based on rules inscribed by French Jesuits in 1595. The rules range from the trivial -- exhortations not to spit in the fire -- to the profound: "Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present."

The rules so laboriously copied by Washington have a common theme: acknowledging the humanity of others. But when you don't see someone's face, that's harder to do. The Internet has connected us in ways that seem almost miraculous. People in Mali, or Syria, or New Orleans tells us when a famine or war or natural disaster is occurring. They can even give us map coordinates to tell us where help is needed most. We raise funds for hungry people, or sick children, or presidential elections. But the ease and impersonality of online life has its pitfalls: we can get addicted to pornography, gambling, or, in my case, real estate listings. We've all sent those inflammatory, late night emails and regretted it later.

If civility is going to be reintroduced to the public sphere, it is first necessary to be clear on what it isn't. Civility is not blandness, sound-bite journalism, or Orwellian double speak. Civility is, in fact, the antidote to those things. In his book, "Civility: A Cultural History," Canadian sociology professor Benet Davetian defines civility as trust in the social bonds that connect us, no matter how rugged our individualism. That trust is based on a reasonable amount of confidence that our actions are congruent with our stated beliefs.

I wonder sometimes if the eruptions of incivility -- former GE head Jack Welch's remark that his successor Jeff Immelt was "getting his ass kicked," Yahoo bureau chief David Chalian's overheard remarks at the Republican convention ("They're happy to have a party with black people drowning!"), even Howard Dean's ill-fated rebel yell in the 2004 election -- are, in part, a reaction to the tightly controlled, manipulative, and at times, utterly dishonest discourse of contemporary American politics.

Civility requires a commitment to truth, as well as compassion. Like a dysfunctional family, a society that fosters disingenuousness and punishes directness will not be able to make good decisions, or move toward a productive future. As Thomas Jefferson said, in his famous quote on freedom of speech, "Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it." But Jefferson never watched television advertising, and the public relations industry had not been invented in 1789. Even Jefferson couldn't anticipate how powerless reason becomes in the face of relentless emotional appeals and psychological manipulation.

In the United States, thankfully, we still have the right to free speech. But in practice, neither free speech nor civility is simple. If you want proof, look at the reason Standard & Poor's and Moody's are skeptical about U.S. bonds: political gridlock. The true challenge of the 21st century may not be rebuilding our economy -- that's the kind of thing we've always been good at -- but rebuilding the way we talk to each other.