ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP) — If observers of history are correct, America may be in more trouble than most of its citizens realize and for a reason not often highlighted in the news. While the national debt, war on terror and a presidential election dominate headlines and newscasts, the decline of civility may be the most ominous issue facing the United States.
The deterioration of civility, according to many historians, served as a key factor in the decline and disappearance of the “enlightened” cultures of Greece and Rome. For some students of history, the decay of civility served as the linchpin for the ancient civilizations’ ultimate demise.
Civility refers to the behavior between members of society that create a social code. It is a foundational principle of a civilized society.
Although a variety of definitions for what constitutes a civil society exists, common among them are a consensus as to what is moral. A civilized society has citizens that treat each other with dignity, respect and decorum. When the aforementioned erode, a society sails itself into troubled waters.
Author Edward Wortley Montague wrote in the 1700s and observed, “Principle causes of the [decline of ancient Greece and Rome] was a degeneracy of manners, which reduced these once brave and free people into the most abject slavery” (“Reflections on the Rise and Fall of the Ancient Republics”).
Edward Gibbons, in his classic work “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” which was produced in the 1700s, attributed the collapse of Rome “in large part due to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens.”
If a common agreement about morality and respectful interaction among citizens are ingredients of a civil society, there are signs the civility that once existed in America is in decline. Almost everywhere you turn, rude, crude and once socially unacceptable behavior seem to be in vogue.
The absence of civility has infected almost every nook and cranny of society. Television, radio, politics, roadways, blogs and social networking sites are rife with incivility. It seems being offensive has become a national pastime in America.
The New York Times reported in January 2011, “Just as Americans are debating whether untamed political rhetoric inspired the shooting of a congresswoman in Arizona, the founder of a project to promote civility in politics is calling it quits because only three elected members of Congress agreed to sign a rudimentary ‘Civility Pledge.'”
According to the Times report, Mark DeMoss, who runs a public relations firm in Atlanta, initiated the Civility Project in 2009. He sent out 585 letters; one to every sitting governor and member of Congress. In the letter DeMoss asked the politicians to sign a pledge that said:
“I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.
“I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.
“I will stand against incivility when I see it.”
Mr. DeMoss decided to stop the project when after spending two years and about $30,000 in expenses on the endeavor only three legislators signed the pledge. “They were,” reported the Times, “Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut; Representative Frank Wolfe, Republican of Virginia; and Representative Sue Myrick, Republican of North Carolina.”
When only three out of 585 elected officials sign a simple pledge to conduct themselves with civility, it is not a good sign. If we were expecting our elected officials to lead way toward a more civil society, it seems we might be in for a long wait.
Perusing a bookstore recently I came across two titles that offered solutions to the currently low state of civility in America. One was titled, “Saving Civility: 52 Ways to Tame Rude, Crude and Attitude for a Polite Planet.” The other book was, “Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct.”
While the authors of the books on civility are well-meaning, and their suggestions are worthwhile, I don’t think a solution to incivility is nearly as complicated as they make it.
We don’t need 52 principles or 25 rules in order to be civil. One simple consideration is all that is necessary. “Do unto others,” Jesus taught, “as you would have others do unto you.”
Treat people the way you want to be treated and incivility evaporates. Sure rude people will still exist, but their influence would diminish and numbers would decline. And besides, after a while rude and crude people actually start to look pretty foolish if there is no one willing to fan their uncivil flame.
Would you like to see a return to civility in America and perhaps stem a decline that could eventually result in the disappearance of our country as we know it? It has to start somewhere. Why not with you? And why not with me?
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press, director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s office of public affairs, and editor of the Baptist Message www.baptistmessage.com, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).