Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Civility Focus for 2011

Look for "civility" to trend in 2011. 

Civility appears to be the designated number one word for public discussion in this new year, thanks in large part to the tragic shootings in Tucson on Jan. 8.

Nine year old Christina Taylor Green and federal judge John M. Roll were among the six people killed. Thirteen other people, including Democratic Party Representative Gabrielle Giffords, were wounded.

Rep. Giffords miraculously survived having a 9 mm bullet shot through her brain - and even more miraculously may be headed for a lengthy period of rehabilitation within weeks.

Even before the initial shock from the shootings could be assimilated by an incredulous public, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and others on the far right were under attack - being blamed for using super heated language which, in turn, lead to Jared Loughner turning his Glock onto Rep. Giffords, and those gathered for her community political gathering outside the Tucson Safeway.

The only problem was there was no evidence that some of the very uncivil comments and tirades by the right wing commentators and their supporters had triggered Jared Loughner's lone shooting spree. That is not to say that in another set of circumstances, with different individuals involved, such language could have lead to violence.

But then it also needs to be said there is no reason to believe that the nightly naming of the Worst Person in the World by MSNBC's liberal commentator Keith Olbermann could not also lead to a deranged individual deciding to to take violent action.

It's because of her inherent sense of civility, even though she is at least as articulate as Olbermann, that I prefer the political commentary of Rachel Maddow. To my mind, at least, she shows that one can very thoroughly critique someone's political perspective without turning it into gratuitous personal attacks.

On both the right and left, there is need for greater civility and careful use of action.

Reflecting the complexities of real life, the call for civility may well extend beyond how we behave in the political arena to another area of public life where lack of understanding and civility often lead to more heat than light. And that is mental illness.

Knowing the power that words and metaphors have to incite powerful responses, and given some of the rhetoric of the last few years, it may have seemed like a no-brainer that Loughner had in fact been somehow influenced by right wing rhetoric.

Only one problem stood in the way of this perspective: There was no evidence of such a connection.

However, there was a growing amount of information reported in the media that Loughner was unstable, and on the basis of the observations of people who knew him and were close to him was suffering from mental illness. In response to that news we heard some very unpleasant and ignorant statements made about mental illness, and how people with mental illness should be treated.

Civility, as it became painfully clear, is not simply a function of politeness, but also is a function of information, of knowledge. And when it comes to serious mental illness, it's clear ignorance which continues to be prevalent.

Thus in the days following the Tucson shooting, the case was unwittingly made that the need for civility wasn't just limited to political opponents and the often inflammatory words they throw at each other.

For example, the case can be made that civility was necessary for those who too readily rushed, with indecent and enthusiastic, haste to judgment without the benefit of evidence. And that when the evidence suggested another contributing factor - mental illness - another case could be made for civility in terms of the storms of the minds which so derail some of us. In both instances, understanding and compassion play at least some role in shaping civil responses.

In the final analysis civility isn't just a burden placed on one's opponents to use wisdom to choose less inflammatory words and images. Civility also means not making rash judgments which end up demonizing one's opponents - or circumstance that are not easily understood.

And here I return to serious mental illness - and of what it means to respond in a civil manner to what is being learned about Jared Loughner. Being civil means far more than how we speak of Loughner, or of others who suffer in similar ways. Being civil has to do with how we as a society choose to provide the help and support for people so they can live safely, harming neither themselves nor others. As long as politicians in both the US and Canada continue the practice of trying to save money when it comes to providing proper care for people with serious mental illness, an integral aspect of the civility of our respective societies will be lacking.

Whether it is politics, mental illness, or the prevalence of crime the inability to reflect on the issues and to discuss with one another civilly creates an added risk factor for all concerned. Sometimes speaking civilly appears weak, as though we do not take the issues seriously enough, or lack the resolve to act decisively and with strength.

At such times it helps to be reminded talk is cheap.

But more to the point, do we always know what it is to be civil in a particular situation?

Fortunately, help is at hand. And that's a good thing because in a complex and perplexing world, civility isn't necessarily as simple as it might seem.

Based at Canada's University of Prince Edward Island is an organization called The Civility Institute.

Its director, Dr. Benet Davetian, says that "the survival of our civilizations may depend on our finding a workable solution to this dilemma" of a pervasive and profound lack of civility at every level of our existence.

"The goal of The Civility Institute is to encourage a multi-dimensional study and discussion of civility and its complex and powerful role in human relations.

"Lack of consideration, impoliteness, workplace bullying, self-entitlement, stressed workers, purposeful rudeness, lack of etiquette, disrespect, violence, social cynicism, unethical practices are all affecting people's motivation, productivity and health.

"It is our hope that the knowledge emanating from this cooperative venture will add to our understanding of the social psychology of intimate relations, identity and mutual recognition, management of educational, corporate and political eultures, and international relations."

Dr. Davetian is author of Civility ~ A Cultural History, published by The University of Toronto Press. The first chapter is available as a PDF by clicking this link. 

The Civility Institute, with which I have no connection or vested interest, would seem to be a worthwhile starting point, for ensuring discussion of civility proves constructive, and a path to ensuring our society is both less tense and more safe for all concerned in the coming year.

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