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On Civility


I saw a report on a news show recently about a grocery store located somewhere in the mid-West which was touted for the extreme politeness of its employees. People came from miles around to shop there because of the friendliness of the staff, and employees also traveled far to work there. Maybe I was missing something, but while the people in the store seemed friendly, they were no more courteous or friendly than the people I encounter as I go about my business here locally. At Food Lion or Rice’s or Barnes and Noble I’m always greeted warmly, asked how I can be helped and wished a good afternoon or evening as I leave. The staff at some of these places know my name and ask me about my family or my column. Around here, it doesn’t seem that much out of the ordinary. Most everyone I know is polite and considerate. To be sure, there is rudeness in the area, particularly on the highways, but by and large, we seem to have a tradition of civility.

I was thinking about the disconnect between my day-to-day experience and what seems to be the recent spate of people behaving badly—politicians, entertainers, sports figures, and ordinary citizens at various meetings and venues. Anger seems to be a common denominator to these demonstrations. Now, I’m no psychologist, but it seems to me that behind the anger lurks frustration, anxiety or general unhappiness. It would seem that if we want to reduce the level of anger and have civil discussions and civil behavior, we need to attend to whatever is fueling the ire in these people.

I became aware of this tendency to confrontation while I was still teaching English. I had one class that seemed fixated on having a debate. I couldn’t quite understand this since there is not a lot to debate in Early American literature. I was also puzzled that they wanted to use such a demanding and complex form. “Why do you want to have a debate?” I asked. “Because debates are cool,” they answered.

After a few times of their asking for a debate it began to dawn on me that what they and I had very different ideas of what a debate was. I asked them for an example of what they meant by a debate. “You know,” they said, “Like on The Jerry Springer Show.” I wasn’t familiar with this bit of broadcast media so I promised to watch an episode.

Well, I was appalled. I have never seen such a collection of dysfunction coupled with exhibitionist urges in my life. And not only was there shouting over each other, there were threats, fisticuffs, and the throwing of chairs. If this was what my students thought of as debating, they had been sorely misinformed somewhere along the line. I told them that if they worked hard, we would have a real debate if we had time at the end of the year.

We came to a point about three weeks before the end of the year where we needed something to wrap up our study of the literature. I told them we would end with a debate. I divided them into teams, and we spent a week going over ideas in American literature, looking for topics that would lend themselves to debate. They caught on to the concept with propositions like “The literature of an era reflects the important ideas of that era,” and “The correlation between an author’s work and life is clear.” Then it was off to the library to research their topics for a week and to prepare their arguments. I went over a simplified form for debate and by the last week of school, they were ready to present. They did a magnificent job. They had well-reasoned, well-researched arguments and listened, rebutted, and summarized like champions. I felt as if they had learned a great deal and had shown it. At the end of the time I asked, “So how did you like debating?”

“It’s a lot of work,” they answered, “But we learned so much.”

In America, perhaps more than any other place, we have a peculiar tension between individualism and the community. Individualism made our country what it is today, but sometimes at the expense of the community. When we work together, we can accomplish great things. Victory in World War II, the interstate highway system and the Apollo moon landing program come to mind as great achievements of Americans bending their efforts toward a common goal. We seem to do so when there is a threat, and certainly we never seem to lack for those. As the Beatles sang, we need to “Come together, right now!”

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