Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Requiem for Civility

I keep in close touch by e-mail with one my oldest and dearest friends. We talk about our families, and our jobs, and list the latest things we haven't been able to find because we put them somewhere we wouldn't lose them. We're not at the same point on the political spectrum, but that's okay with us, because we value our friendship and there's so much more to that friendship than whether we are red or blue voters.

That's why she felt safe to ask me yesterday whether I thought Sarah Palin was partially to blame for the Tucson shooting. No, I replied, I think a mentally ill man with access to guns was responsible, and the political venue of this shooting was completely random. The massacre could just as logically have happened at the school he attended, or the McDonald's where he got his coffee, or anywhere his misfiring brain perceived a slight.

The fact that we're even discussing whether the tragedy could be blamed on a political figure, though, makes me almost sick with sadness. It's a symptom of a loss that has occurred during my lifetime: The loss of civility.

Political and media stars no longer speak with eloquence and nuance. Positions are staked at extremes, and there these stars sit, damning everything outside of the narrow confines of their opinions. And because humans tend to imitate communication methods (look at the way a child learns to talk) the rest of us also begin to shout our opinions loudly, sticking our fingers in our ears and chanting "lalalalalacan'thearyou" when anything even remotely disagreeable intrudes. We take as our role models those least likely to inspire compromise or inclusion of varying viewpoints. Bill O'Reilly, but also Jon Stewart. Barney Franks, but also Sarah Palin.

Being stridently noncompromising, these figures have found, is highly profitable in terms of exposure, votes, and (perhaps most important) money.

I see this in politics, but I also see it in other venues. I was horrified by the Chinese Mother, and her total-control slave-driving style of parenthood. My knee-jerk reaction was to join the thousands of commenters who excoriated that style. But then I thought of the abysmal behavior I've seen from children whose parents think misbehaving three-year-olds are "cute" and I realized I have a bit of the Chinese Mother in me. I certainly wouldn't speak up to say so, though.

I see links on Facebook pages that trumpet one political view, and if another point of view is proposed, the feeding frenzy that follows.

I'd like to call for a return to listening to the opinions of others, a return to discussion and respectfully disagreeing. I'd like to, but I'm afraid it's too late.

I'm afraid civility is dead.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. You've been reading my facebook page haven't you? We should start an online discussion to demonstrate civil discourse.

    (To everyone--I deleted my other comment because it had a typo).

  3. Neither side can be civil towards the other and I have seen that since Bill Clinton lied. However that was also when I became so passionate about politics.I love my friends regardless of their political reviews. Therefore, I prefer not to discuss my views so openly these days.

  4. Michelle, I always admire the passion inspired by your FB posts, but yes, I'm sometimes taken aback by the vitriol. And Rebecca, I think lying in politics goes back a lot farther than Clinton but you may be right that this is where we decided we couldn't see any side but our own. It's sad, really.