The decline of civility?

June 21, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

I was having coffee the other day with a KM colleague. We are planning a workshop together and somehow the conversation turned into a discussion around the decline of civility in public life. Beware: unstructured rant ahead. I’ve been pondering if I’m just turning into a cranky old goat. Mind you, I rather relish the thought of becoming cranky in my dotage and complaining of “those young people today with no manners”. Anyway, we were talking about what seems to be a lack of empathy in today’s society (a recent blog post topic for me), which has resulted in public embarrassment or humiliation of people on reality show TV for example.

We came to the tentative conclusion that it’s about time.  One hundred years or so ago, people had more time. They could study the Classics at leisure. Go on the Grand Tour of Europe studying art works. Letters took a week or so to get to someone so there was time to reflect on content and compose a measured response. For entertainment, families gathered around the piano and sang together; played cards; or….gasp…talked. Items weren’t manufactured in China for the throw-away society. Artifacts where more often than not hand-crafted and treasured, perhaps handed down through the generations. People weren’t trying to grab the spotlight of fame for 15 minutes, appearing on some reality TV show drivel. Now, we want a movie star life with the movie star salary.

There was less abundance; less choice. My friend was saying his daughter recently spent an hour in a DVD store and re-emerged with nothing. She had been unable to make a decision about which DVD to get as there was too much choice on offer. And so we become paralysed. We don’t value things as much because they are disposable, not as well made as in the past, not guaranteed to last a lifetime to be handed down to the grandchildren. We are bombarded with information. Blackberries shrill. Incoming emails alert us. We feel the need to Twitter or reveal our private lives on Facebook. We feel the pressure of needing to say something witty or smart so we have 1 million followers on Twitter.

The values that we, as a community, used to share – family, country, faith, learning, truth – have disappeared to be replaced by degradation and a lack of kindness or consideration for others. Dressed up as “entertainment” we have shows that encourage people to “look 10 years younger” by subjecting themselves to plastic surgery or talent shows where judges have acerbic tongues ready to lash out and criticise, humiliate and belittle. We live in an anti-political age where collective and community engagement is at an all-time low.

I used to love The Golden Years of Hollywood, hosted by Bill Collins (very knowledgeable Australian film buff). These were innocent films like “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Singing in the Rain”. Now, we are inured to violence because we see it all the time in Hollywood blockbusters. There is a vulgarity present in our interactions with strangers in public space. Etiquette of course – the formal rules that existed in the 19th Century – was a way of enforcing social class distinctions, but any semblance of manners or consideration has flown the coop because we now seem to accept any form of behaviour because, hey – I’m an individual and entitled to my opinion.

The American philosopher, John Rawls, said “when liberties are left unrestricted, they collide with one another” (in his work, A Theory of Justice). I think that’s what we are seeing. Individuals with unfettered freedom colliding with each other. The rich, the bold, the brash, the powerful jostle to the top on the shoulders of others, whilst the rest of us are confused over what are the rules of social interaction in our society. Do I give up my train seat for that pregnant lady or do I say to myself “nope, I paid for this ticket too, she can stand?” (And BTW: I would stand up, not keep sitting).

And so as a result of the conversation, I ended up pondering the decline (the loss?) of civility in public life. Let’s not confuse civility with old fashioned good manners or etiquette. Civility is about respecting others and showing that respect. Even good old George Washington got this right when he said ‘Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present” (in his book, 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation). Civility governs (or should govern) our public life surely. Our daily interactions place us in contact with strangers. We have no idea of their background, their personalities, their problems or their religious viewpoints. But to treat them as equals, we must surely show them civility. Civility gives them and us the cue as to what the rules of social interaction are. Civility becomes a shared rule we can all understand and it regulates society through harmonious relationships with one another.

But we are in a state of anxiety – over the global financial mess, over whether or not we’ll lose our jobs, over whether or not the very high opinion we have of ourselves and our talent is shared by others. I sense a bubbling undercurrent of violence and unrest in society (I’m talking about Western society). It’s like we are waiting for some time bomb to go off. Civillity has taken a back seat. Even Good Samaritans are killed these days. Or people are deliberately run over and critically injured following a minor traffic incident.

But if we deliberately and doggedly continue to pursue our own self interest and ignore civility in public space, then the question must eventually become – how long before we descend into anarchy? And then, how long before the State has to step in and curtail the freedom of the individual?

Okay end of rant. I will reflect on civility some more and do another post.

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Entry filed under: Rant, Social problems. Tags: .

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