Is Civility Dead in America?

CIVILITY1. Courteous behavior; politeness.  2. A courteous act or utterance. (The Free Dictionary)

Is civility dead in America? Judging by the reaction on blogs, social media (Facebook and Twitter), and comments to news articles following the death of Matthew Warren, the youngest son of Rick and Kay Warren, and Lady Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, the answer seems to be a solid “YES.” The Washington Post reported that not a few commenters used the occasion of Matthew Warren’s death to spew hate toward the Warren family during their time of grief:

But a shocking number are taking the moment of media attention to lash out at Warren on their digital tom-toms. The attacks are aimed both at him personally and at his Christian message.  Some unbelievers want to assure Rick and Kay Warren, his wife and Matthew’s bereaved mother, that there’s no heaven where they’ll meet their son again.  ‘Either there is no God, or God doesn’t listen to Rick Warren, despite all the money Rick has made off of selling false hope to desperate people,’ one poster from Cincinnati wrote in to USA Today.”

Following the death of Margaret Thatcher, even most of her political opponents took the time to say something nice about Great Britain’s first female Prime Minister. However, there were more than enough folks who displayed disrespectful and churlish behavior and who went out of their way to make fools (there are other words that come to mind, but it wouldn’t be civil to write those) of themselves. One such “leader,” Chris Kitchen, general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, said:

We’ve been waiting for a long time to hear the news of Baroness Thatcher’s demise and I can’t say I’m sorry. I will not be shedding a tear for her. (here)

Obviously Mr. Kitchen, along with the hundreds of British citizens dancing and partying in the street at the news of Mrs. Thatcher’s death and IRA terrorists political leaders like Gerry Adams, have never heard their mums tell them, “if you don’t have anything nice to say about someone (particular at their death), then shut up!” Well, I paraphrased that well-known principle. Another principle that comes to mind with some of these wackadoodles — who have forgotten what Baroness Thatcher (along with Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II) did to defeat communism and Soviet aggression in Europe in the 1980’s — is a quote often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

While the writer of The Post article might seemed shocked at the number of those who would exhibit incivility, rudeness, and loutishness toward the Warren family in their time of grief, we should no longer be surprised by such widespread behavior. As much as we might wish that our culture were more “civilized,” the reality is that America is more discourteous than she has ever been. No longer do we confine our occasional lapses of ungraciousness to the political arena. For far too many — conservative and liberal alike — boorish behavior has become a 24/7 lifestyle, enabled by Facebook, Twitter, and other social media that seem to have no filters between what pops into someone’s mind and what they type on their keypad.

Is civility dead in America? While my answer is a solid “YES,” I do not believe that it has to be an unequivocal or irreversible yes. Can we agree to disagree, even on the most controversial issues facing our culture today? Can political opponents learn to respect one another without resorting to vitriolic name-calling? Can we be polite — gracious — to those with whom we have very little in common (politics, religion, culture, lifestyle)? Can we civilly discuss issues and not personalities on Facebook and Twitter with friends on the other side of the aisle without casting aspersions on their character?

To all of these questions, I can answer with a resounding “YES.” How can that be? Because I have tried — although not perfectly — to follow these simple rules for civility. Is it easy? No. Can it be frustrating at times? Absolutely. Do I want to sometimes “let loose” and tell someone how I really feel about what they said or a position that they have taken? You’re darn tootin’! But, in the end, I would rather do my part to build bridges — even to those who might vehemently disagree with my positions. Who knows?  If we all made a concerted effort to build more bridges rather than lob verbal hand grenades, we might just find that civility (and grace) in America — although on life support — is not dead yet!

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