01/18/2011 05:19 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Accepting Our Differences, Between Civility and Dignity

By Carol Smaldino, CSW

The political correctness wars have reignited, and once again we find ourselves trying to heal deep and pervasive problems with a quick fix. This is a recipe for disaster if we try to simply sugarcoat the issues of our day while our true sentiments remain sour. The deep divisions in our country symbolize something, and they won't stay long buried underneath the rubble of artificial courtesy.

I have been wondering for some time now about our lack of curiosity about the "why" in so many complex situations. Have we forgotten how to ask that simple question? Perhaps this is because the question poses grave problems in tackling whatever it is that we are giving our focus to at any given moment. Is this about our public behavior only? Are we aiming for an artificial politeness on which we all get graded with the best marks reserved for those who spin, opine or avoid entire subjects completely?

As we begin to get distance from the Arizona tragedy and deal with yet another high school shooting, this time in Los Angeles, it is important to realize that the opposite of vitriol isn't merely a civility that exists only on the surface. To be vitriolic is to be malicious, vicious, sarcastic and "red-hot;" all words filled with the intent to menace and do damage. Once upon a time, the promise of dignity that comes with our national claim of respect for the value of the individual and the community gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement. In my day, that struggle was led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we rather indignantly celebrated with vacations and shopping. And while I admit that there is racism in this country, and that it is as palpable as ever in the lives of people of color, I feel we tend to minimize just how big the shift that Civil Rights workers made for recent generations and for those to come.

I remember that I was a bit too young to go down South and, frankly, a bit too frightened to be one of those hearty souls who marched and fought for freedom. I greatly admired the power of their refusal to debase themselves to the levels of their tormentors. I vividly remember the news footage; the policemen with dogs, the fire hoses turned on protestors. The nation watched as the cruelty was heaped -- literally in beatings and cigarettes burned on their heads. That sight is still haunting when I pause to remember it.

At the time, they were doing the unthinkable, and my sense is that today, we need to begin thinking in ways in which we haven't dared; going outside the boxes of the myriad of ways that we are bullied through media hosts whose questions are not questions at all but are personally intrusive and full of snide accusations.

As it was then, America is again being defined by the power of the current culture -- the news media included -- and we haven't yet grasped that to go from one rule of moralistic righteousness and harshness to another one that is simply more subtle is to merely change one tonic for another.

We have to become freer to question the ways in which we and our lives are defined, certainly for gay people and the poor and the handicapped and the old and the parents of children who cannot yet fight for the dignity they deserve. This is not about demonizing the bully of all stripes or to forget that we all have a capacity to become mean. It is about standing up for our dignity as human beings in the first place, with help if necessary, to sort out how we feel bullied by needing to live up to cultural standards that don't describe us.

Too often it is the person being scapegoated who has much to teach us and much to share. The public tried to scapegoat right and left wing icons after Tucson. Everyone is now scapegoating Jared Loughner. And as for standing up for diversity, let's also rise up for diversity of thought too, and diversity of temperament the lack of which represents real cruelty. This is crucial.

If you need a fashionable mantra to get your head around this idea, try: Just because someone sounds smarter or more right or more righteous than you or any of us, doesn't make it so. We need to start questioning anyone who puts down our desire to learn, to think, or to question. Prejudices (political, social, philosophical, racial), are not religions. Despite having unprecedented access to information, we have allowed our personal feelings to trump facts and allowed our belief systems to defy evidence.

We boldly claim America's greatness while we fail our children and grand children ensuring they will not have a chance at greatness. Yet our response is, "Well, it is what it is." We have been become so conditioned to accept what "is" for what "has to be." This state of adaptation is more of an emergency when it comes without thought, caring or dignity. The threat that this represents to our nation's integrity seems, to me, worthy of assigning a code level of orange. Perhaps something like that might help us become alert to the need for us to examine the lack of dignity and respect with which we treat each other.

We need to start somewhere, anywhere will do.