Our country is civility-challenged these days. Not just by Trumpism. Not just the Democratic congressional "sit-in" about gun control legislation. Not just Ben Affleck's F-bomb-laden tirade on national television about the Boston Patriots' Deflategate scandal. Not just the tragic, hateful, cowardly massacre in Orlando. Nor the recent white supremacist rally in Sacramento, where ten people were injured. These are but a few incidents on the spectrum of incivility that occur each day in America.
But what is more challenging is the environment that makes us believers of incivility. There is an expectation, especially among Millennials and Generation Z-ers, that vulgarity, crudeness and rudeness are normal and acceptable. They hear and see incivility in action on reality TV shows, hear it on the radio, read about it on the Internet and readily accept -- and sometimes relish -- it on social media.
The acceptance of incivility gives rise and license to quirky and uncivil protests on college campuses. Oberlin College students protested vigorously, not about life and death issues, discrimination or police brutality, but, rather, about ethnic food! Their presumption was that, to get their way, confrontation was necessary and conversation was ineffective.
More troubling is that modern-day culture -- driven largely by media -- assumes that civility is not happening in America; that noise, negativity, confrontation and in-your-face behavior rule our communities and guide our interpersonal relationships.
I first encountered this presumption in a Project Love workshop I gave a few years ago to teen leaders of ten suburban high schools in Cleveland. I commented that we would have a totally different society if people were just nice to each other. A teen raised her hand to make the following observation: "That would be a pretty boring society," she said, as though I was offering a contemporary version of "Pleasantville."
I responded with a question. "How many of you spend time with your friends or cousins on the weekends?" Almost everyone in the room raised their hands. I continued. "And when you spend time with them, do you look forward to their being mean to you or nice to you? Would it be more enjoyable if they made fun of you and cut you down?"
"Of course not," another student responded. I continued, "Then why do you assume that if people we nicer to each other on the streets or on TV, we'd have a such a boring society?" They got it. Case closed.
Disbelief in the possibility of civility even prompts inaction by leaders. Why get involved? Two years ago, I met one of America's most prominent business leaders, a billionaire whose name is a gold standard in American enterprise. I was wearing my "Searching for Values" hat at a social function and he came over to ask me what that meant. I told him that it represents Purple America, which seeks to empower Americans to use their shared values as a guide for civil dialogue and as a means to finding positive and mutual solutions. "It will never happen," he dismissed. "We're too far gone."
What he didn't realize is that people want civility but, like the teen leader at the seminar, they don't know what it looks like. Unlike the foregone television era of the '60s and '70s, when virtually every TV show had underlying moral messages, they don't see civility or values-in-action on TV or social media. So it's easy to assume, in this era of Trump-talk and trash-talk, that civility is dead or no longer possible. Bad mistake.
I've come to the conclusion that civility is not dead -- it's just misunderstood. People don't realize that -- in the America that works -- civility is crucial and used everyday.
Virtually every major community has a United Way. In this context, diverse people come together to raise millions of dollars to support significant education, health and human service causes. Imagine this effort occurring with such success without people being nice to each other and collaborative. Hello -- they're being civil, and it works!
Most communities sponsor school levies to support the local schools. In the most recent school levy campaign in Cleveland, public and charter schools, teachers, administrators, unions, businesses and government (a Republican governor and a Democratic mayor) came together in the interest of supporting the schools. Their values -- specifically the values of Community and Doing the Right Thing -- told them to set aside differences to benefit the children of our community. They were being civil.
Community doesn't work without civility. In communities that function well, kindness, caring, respect, collaboration and conversation take place every day. Whether from people delivering meals on wheels, to leaders working on pressing community issues, teachers teaching school, and people worshiping in churches, civility happens. And we like it!
One more picture of civility. Being from Cleveland, I must mention the Cavs, not to tout their victory but, rather, to tout their victory parade. Approximately 1.3 million people crowded the streets of downtown Cleveland to welcome LeBron James and the other champs. It was hot; the streets were crowded; people were pressed against each other and against the motorcade. What was supposed to be a one-hour parade became a four-hour parade, marked by high-fives, smiling fans, people hugging people, smiling faces and kindness, caring and respect. This, too, was the face of civility.
New York ad exec Linda Kaplan Thaler and Baltimore sports agent Ron Shapiro, in different books with similar titles, tell stories about how "The Power of Nice" brought success to their careers and businesses. Dina Dwyer-Owens' recent book "Values, Inc." shows us how using the values of kindness, respect, conversation and collaboration have made her company's brands, including Mr. Rooter and Glass Doctor, iconic service providers to American households. After all, who wants a nasty, uncivil plumber?
Civility in America isn't dead. We just believe that it is. And as long as we do, incivility will ultimately become more and more the norm. The pictures of civility -- those examples we can still point to -- will ultimately fade, relics in someone's attic.
Here is my challenge to you: believe in civility and stand up for civility! Spread the word and take a stand by doing this simple act:
Go to www.purpleamerica.us. Download and print our free poster, "I STAND FOR CIVILITY". Display it in a window at home and a prominent place at work.
Let's take back America -- a CIVIL United States of America!
Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us. Project Love is a school-based character-development program of Values-in-Action Foundation. To see information about Project Love school programming, go to www.projectlove.org