OP-ED: Life of civility requires help from everyone

By Joseph J. Honick
Joseph J. Honick
Joseph J. Honick

So rare is civility in society these days that even the legendary "Oxford Dictionary of Phrase, Saying and Quotation" fails to list it as a category in its latest edition. Political campaigns have created new employment opportunities for "consultants" to dig up any and all conceivable personal dirt not only on opponents but on their own clients.

Yet truth is hardly the goal. Throughout our lives, we witness the grimy conduct of political, athletic and other leaders. We also find out how much they earn despite their uncivil behavior. Sports and entertainment icons are quickly forgiven for their forays into spousal abuse and nasty conduct while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Why is it some of the most discourteous and even criminal activities are acceptable and the escape of punishment a trophy? How we act and what we find acceptable all seem to have roots in what we see and hear from celebrities, politicians or business leaders.

For example, did you know the U.S. House of Representatives was forced to hold public hearings last year to discuss its own bad conduct among its members? Subcommittee Chairman David Dreier said "While we haven't witnessed any canings or pistol whippings on the House floor in recent years (referring to such things in the middle 19th century), there is evidence of a decline in debate decorum generally." That put the reality quite mildly. Most people do not know the daily Congressional Record is often cleansed of some of the worst vulgarity, profanity and nastiness you can imagine that was uttered by "distinguished" representatives.

And it doesn't end in such institutional surroundings. Whether or not we like to admit it, far too many of us well up in anticipation of bloody fights on the hockey ice and brawling that seems to be the final means of "negotiation" during baseball, football and basketball games. What does it mean that the appalling conduct on the Jerry Springer show draws more viewers than Oprah Winfrey?

There used to be a respected adage: "It doesn't matter whether you won or lost, but how you played the game." Use it today, and you'll be laughed out of the place much the same way as I was some years ago when I suggested athletes who walked out on their prized college scholarships to take lucrative professional contracts be required to pay the universities for having reneged on their deals. The session was titled "Ethics and the Professional Athlete." I'll wait until you finish snickering.

Then of course there is the scourge of "road rage" that seems to make people we know as reasonably nice turn into uncontrolled animals. The media regularly covers stories of so-called disgruntled discharged employees returning to their former work sites and wreaking murderous revenge on former supervisors, ex-colleagues and virtually anyone in sight. And haven't we seen enough kids resolving grievances in the schoolyard with powerful weapons?

Some say we act this way because we no longer know each other due to increased urbanization. But that may not hold water as the recent school tragedies have occurred in small towns. Others assert that the stress created by the virtually non-stop pounding away at our psyches by talks shows, powerful film of events on television and advertising invade our beings to the point of explosion.

The problem has even reached into religion, where zealots of most any faith are quite willing to condemn those of dissimilar beliefs and practices and, can you believe, use Scripture to support their assertions, even when the claims are coming from diametrically opposite opinions within the same faith.

The one thing on which nearly all of us can agree is that the whole business ofincivility has gone much too far. So what can we do about it?

First we have to recognize how much so many of us seem to like the discourtesy practiced by politicians, entertainment and sports figures and try to emulate their actions to demonstrate our own toughness or disdain for someone or something. Second, we have to recognize that words can damage every bit as much as actions. Third, we have to eliminate the idea we don't have a problem and recognize it has infected kids and adults alike and is spreading virtually unchecked.

Fourth, we have to recognize this problem is not only as important as the discussionof sex but may well be part of the sexual problem itself. Finally, we have to make the subject of civility and tolerance as much a part of everything we do, from home to church or temple, to school and interpersonal relationships and certainly on athletic fields. The power blocs of politics, entertainment and religion have to apply the same zeal to preaching and demonstrating civility that they demand of everyone else.

To be sure, there is no one single brilliantly devised answer, but the minimum is to make an effort to incorporate courtesy and tolerance into our daily lives. The results could be amazing. Avoiding this effort would be both immoral and explosive. Can we breathe new life into the concept of simple good manners? Given the tempo of the times, one must assume civility is gasping for breath. Where are the courtesy medics when we need them?

 Tucsonan Joseph Honick is president of GMA/International Ltd.

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This commentary by Huntington News Network contributor Joseph J. Honick, who now lives in Bainbridge Island, Washington,  was originally published in the Arizona Daily Star, Tucson, AZ, Sept. 2, 1998.

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