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November 1996, Volume 4 Nr 3, Issue 39

Civility

To the relief of many people both in the United States and abroad, especially the Canadians who endure the onslaught of U.S. televised media, the 1996 Presidential elections are over. The so-called "debates" have come and gone, as have the daily proclamations by political spinmeisters, damage control specialists and media figures, of the coverage, content, flavor, ethics, diet, medical reports, failings, trysts, personal shortcomings, private life, contributions to and contributions by the selected principal players.

The print, radio, television and electronic media create, manipulate and participate in the political fray. We are so accustomed to taking the means by which we acquire information for granted that we fail to recognize that media events are orchestrated for our consumption. Just like any other product that a consumer purchases, everything from political ads to debates, from polls through strategic leaks, embarrassments, and even world-wide events are produced for our benefit to alter the opinions we hold and the emotions we exhibit.

Information Consumerism

As consumers of information, we pay for what we mentally, psychologically and emotionally ingest through the corporate purchase of our attention and time. Consider that products, services and ideas are less sold to us than is the guarantee that we will be watching at any given moment. Viewership is pedaled to the highest exorbitant bidder. It is much more cost-effective for the networks to present millions of people to an advertiser than to present a product to a viewer. During the Super Bowl, for example, a guaranteed audience of millions substantially raises the price of a thirty-second commercial. The content of the advertisement is less relevant than the attempt to manipulate our thinking en masse. It goes beyond simply placing a message before the largest audience.

Prior to committing an investment in mindtime and mindspace (i.e. influencing TV viewers), surveys and polls determine the mood and susceptibility of the people to the intended messages. It makes little sense for example, to advertise veggie burgers when polls show that people are looking for new beef products. Similarly, a politician running for high elected office would not profligate a message of increased tax spending, even in the best interests of the nation, when polling data shows that people do not want their taxes raised? It matters little whether it is the best thing to do but rather that it is the politically advantageous thing to do.

When we couple the childhood messages of might makes right, and rugged individualism with the post Vietnam modern day notion that winning is everything, and anything goes as long we don’t get caught, while at the same time claiming a moral high ground rooted in a religion or a book, then we create a universe in which the ego is elevated to the authority of God. The Ego, spelled with a capital "E", then becomes the powerhouse to which it always aspires, but fortunately, seldom attains. If history teaches us anything, it is that such ego elevation is the foundation for the possible expression of a raw evil disguised as the conscious or unconscious illusion of doing good.

Civilian Enemy

The messages we receive and the lessons we learn through the information we let in and process, are to one extent or another, the behavior that we exhibit. The behavior we exhibit is to a large extent a consequence of the messages we are exposed to. This creates a self-replicating cycle which tries to convince us that, not only are we correct, but that those who agree with us must be correct as well. Those who disagree must be wrong.

The dichotomy implies that there must be an other. There must therefore, exist an enemy that is at least as intent as we are, to manipulate us, to make our thinking otherwise. While we are willing to perceive the intentions of others as attempts to influence, we seldom acknowledge that we wish to influence them.

If an enemy or more correctly, if our perception of an enemy, were to cease to exist, then we would need to admit that our thoughts are not necessarily our own and that the real enemies are the manipulators of our thought. This is how our society as a whole adopted Communism as the enemy in the late fifties and sixties. Those that opposed the Vietnam war became the object of scorn and disdain. It as after all, they, the thinking went, who are unpatriotic.

The collapse of the Soviet Union is a prime example of what happens when we lose an enemy we have grown to love to hate. A vacuum develops and the ego looks for a replacement. For a time the replacements became Ayatollah Khomeini, Moamar Khadaffi, Saddam Hussein, etc.

What better enemy can there be however, than our fellow citizens who live in the next state, the next town, the next street and, next door? If we adopt an enemy-in-our-midst perception of our neighbor, then we can have a daily reminder of the "threat". There is a warped but false sense of security when we believe we have identified the source of our insecurity within our midst. We become card carrying members of a political Mickey Mouse Club. Our clubhouse consists of similarly frightened people in need of identifying a common enemy.

If one were to invent an enemy close to home, in similar fashion to that of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the late fifties, who would that enemy be? Would the enemy be the corporate bosses that close plants and move them to foreign shores where child labor is paid fifty-cents to manufacture a pair of designer sneakers selling for more than hundred dollars? Would the enemy be the State that uses hard earned pension funds to bail out unrelated unproductive investment? Would the enemy be a chemical company that oversprays chemical herbicides over farm workers while they pick grapes? Could the enemy possibly be hatred, bigotry, war, intolerance?

One would at least suspect that in consciously choosing an enemy, it might be in the form of events, actions that harm, something with which we can establish an empathetic connection to the plight of people. That is not what happens. Instead, we unconsciously blame those that are least apt to defend themselves. We attack the hungry, the poor, the illiterate, the homeless, the uneducated, the powerless and the disenfranchised. It becomes familiar habit.

Civility as Weakness

The messages we get from radio (talk show hosts in particular) and from movies is: civility is weakness. We learn that dialogue intent on producing mutually acceptable solutions to problems is a sissy activity. Civility is boring. We are taught that compromise is akin to giving in. Over and over we expose ourselves to the message - Respect is power. Power is respect. Strength comes from dissing, silencing, demeaning, degrading and humiliating an opponent.

The most readily silenced as we have stated is the downtrodden, the non-player - the person who chooses not to indulge in the tactics of division. It is the one for whom voices do not cry out loudly. It is the meek. We find a new enemy, one to replace the Communists, once again, finally finding the real source of our problems. To the poor, the sick, the hungry, the disenfranchised, etc., we add gay and lesbian people, people of color, immigrants, foreigners and the unemployed. Most recently, we added the government.

All of Us

That includes a lot of people! There but for fortune go you or I. What boggles the mind about all this is that many of these same people simultaneously profess the moral high ground while they rationalize, even celebrate shaming, blaming and scapegoating. While sixteen years of Catholic schooling hardly makes me an expert in matters Christian, I can attest to being taught the basic message of my childhood faith as exemplified in the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Blessed are those who mourn.
Blessed are the gentle.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are the pure in heart.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
Blessed are those who have been persecuted.

Our perceptions of each other as victim or enemy, along with seeing civility as weakness creates a highly troubling scenario: we lack the comfort of purpose that a nation requires to survive. With that, egos remain on hair-trigger alert for any signs of threat. Fear governs how we interact and react with each other. The engendered instability becomes manifest in predictable ways such as the civil unrest in Los Angeles, Newark, Baltimore, Saint Petersburg, etc., or the bombing of the Federal Building in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Football Philosophy

We in the United States are quite fond of football. Millions watch Monday night football. In January, the Super Bowl draws tens of millions of people to their TV screens. It becomes a challenge and an eye-opening exercise to ignore the participants in the Super Bowl, deliberately not knowing who the teams are. It has become quite a challenge at our home.

If ever there was an example of television's success as a medium of conveying images, it is in the sports arena. There is however, a price to pay.

Football, as a game is played with opposing sides poised to take the other’s land. Players are trained to be hard hitting. They drag, knock or otherwise tackle their opponent to the ground. Territory is taken. The opposition’s defense requires neutralizing. One only need to read the sports column headlines to realize that teams annihilate, drum, beat, pulverize, overpower, smash, demoralize, liquidate, demolish, destroy, overpower, overwhelm, etc., the opposition. In the movie Little Giants, the underdog team even resorts to placing Alka Seltzer in their mouths to psyche out their opponents, having them believe that they are uncontrollable, violent players, foaming at the mouth. While humorously portrayed, this is hardly the underpinnings of civility.

I have observed adults, youngsters, family members as they watch a football game. Inevitably, this occurs during the Thanksgiving, Winter Solstice and New Year holidays. It seems the harder the tackle, the more the glee. The bigger the body pileup, the more the excitement. Body smashups are considered "awesome." Human beings hurled through the air excite and entertain.

I cannot help but wonder what effect this football philosophy has upon a generation of viewers. What effect does it have on them and the decisions they make as they take their place in society. How is the mission and mind of a candidate such as Jack Kemp affected by his football career and philosophy?

What of the soldier? Does he envision the battlefield as a football game? Does the order to "Take the hill" translate to "First down…goal to go?" What of their counterparts flying multimillion dollar aircraft capable of mass destruction in the skies above? How does football philosophy, in combination with a lifetime of playing blow ‘em up video games, affect what we think and do?

Desperation

In an era where nothing seems to enough, where we perceive ourselves lacking in everything from self-esteem to income and material possessions; from lack of security to not getting enough from our relationships, there develops an urgency to do something, anything to make it better. A sense of desperation takes over and we may fall into a pattern of mean spirited, irritated, attacking behavior, blaming everyone else for all our ills. Witness the sad but telling, final weeks of Senator Robert Dole's presidential campaign. "Where is the outrage?", Mr. Dole bellowed. If only the American people could see President Clinton as I see him, a liar, womanizer, cheat, slick political operative, master of manipulation, lacking in ethics, leading the country down the immoral path, then they might overlook the evidence that so am I, and vote for me.

I came across a quote on the Internet from Raphael Carter:

Thoreau said, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," and I'm starting to think he was an optimist. Or, anyway, a product of his time. Nowadays, LOUD desperation appears to be the norm.

Fortunately, there are hopeful signs. People have grown tired of living their lives with the constant drumbeat of "loud desperation." This is why I believe that Bob Dole's image and message could not catch on with the American People. Dole's loss of hope and despair became obvious. He tended to act rashly and harshly, tiring his audience and further contributing to his desperation.

While there will always the be the desperate that seek the company of others sharing their mutual angst, the people have grown tired of the desperation's lack of civility. After all, the people are not as desperate as Dole makes them or himself, out to be. President Bill Clinton had recognized this early on. Clinton decided that he would not appear to be a participant in the increasingly less popular overt exercise of gaining political points at the expense of his opponent. He would remain civil.

One need give Bill Clinton credit for understanding the mood of the nation while at the same time managing his campaign to covertly play the same game with impunity. Bill Clinton has redefined the term "Teflon presidency" by embracing the perception of highly visible global civility while allowing his opponent to self-destruct in the highly visible quagmire of self-imposed desperation. Senator Dole comes across as uncivil.

Hope

There are hopeful signs that the situation is changing. During the 1996 elections, our nation in general, and Vermont in particular rejected incivility. On Saturday before the election, Burr and Burton Seminary (High School) monthly newsletter, The Bullhorn, arrived in the mail. Unbeknownst to me, the headmaster's letter on the front page was about Civility. Headmaster Chuck Scranton writes,

Rarely does a day go by that I don't hear some complaint about the lack of manners and of civility in young people today. Concerns are being expressed by parents ,teachers, the media, and even by our candidates for national office...It seems to me that it is too convenient simply to indict our youth. We must look to the preceding generation for answers...In a society that has become too focused on blame and pointing a finger at the other guy, we must remind ourselves that our most important job is being a parent and a role model.

Hope is the promise of better things still to come. It is the consequent which follows respect. If we respect each other and our inherent differences, even while we disagree, we can bring back and/or maintain a civility that mutually assures harmony, self-identity and progress toward self-fulfillment without exacting a price from someone else.

Even in the business community, known for fierce competition and excess, there is movement in this direction. Consider the concept of Articulate Management which is defined to be:

...a mission to the business community which seeks to reverse the seemingly inevitable trend toward the consumption of the lives and identities of people by the very businesses upon which they must depend to derive their necessities of life. The beneficiaries of this mission are the children of tomorrow, in that our success or failure may well decide whether theirs is a future of stifling regimentation and corporate servitude, or one of limitless possibilities to make individual contributions to the honor of the human spirit, in the process raising the standard of living for the entire world, as they have in renaissance's past.

Allen Hacker, founder and Executive Director of Articulate Management, has organized his philosophy as a "Humanitarian Trust" where he seeks to establish "...a universal business and social ethic and practice based on mutual respect 'which will in turn bring about' the world at peace, with benevolent commerce the foremost social enthusiasm". I believe Mr. Hacker has expressed in business terms what A Course in Miracles calls right thinking.

In short, right thinking is the letting go of the negative, fear-based, ego-inspired notions that others are to blame for our shortcomings, problems, disappointments and lack of fulfillment. Right thinking says that we have everything that we need and that we are lacking in nothing.

Consider the Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation which were studied and practiced by George Washington. There are one-hundred ten of them. Perhaps, we can take the most relevant of them for our modern times and pass them along as parents, teachers, role models, people in positions of authority. When we reinforce examples civility through child rearing and education and practice it ourselves, we may find civility increase all around us.

Rules of Civility
[Ferry Farm, c. 1744, abridged]

  • 1st Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.
  • 3d Shew Nothing to your Freind that may affright him.
  • 14th Turn not your Back to others especially in Speaking, Jog not the Table or Desk on which Another reads or writes, lean not upon any one.
  • 19th let your Countenance be pleasant but in Serious Matters Somewhat grave.
  • 20th The Gestures of the Body must be Suited to the discourse you are upon.
  • 21st: Reproach none for the Infirmaties of Nature, nor Delight to Put them that have in mind thereof.
  • 22d Shew not yourself glad at the Misfortune of another though he were your enemy.
  • [24th Do not laugh too loud or] too much at any Publick [Spectacle].
  • 25th Superfluous Complements and all Affectation of Ceremonie are to be avoided, yet where due they are not to be Neglected.
  • 39th In writing or Speaking, give to every Person his due Title According to his Degree & the Custom of the Place.
  • 43d Do not express Joy before one sick or in pain for that contrary Passion will aggravate his Misery.
  • 44th When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it.
  • 45th Being to advise or reprehend any one, consider whether it ought to be in publick or in Private; presently, or at Some other time in what terms to do it & in reproving Shew no Sign of Cholar but do it with all Sweetness and Mildness.
  • [4]9 Use no Reproachfull Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile.
  • 56th Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for 'tis better to be alone than in bad Company.
  • 65th Speak not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest Scoff at none although they give Occasion.
  • 66th Be not froward but friendly and Courteous; the first to Salute hear and answer & be not Pensive when it's a time to Converse.
  • 67th Detract not from others neither be excessive in Commanding.
  • 73d Think before you Speak pronounce not imperfectly nor bring ou[t] your Words too hastily but orderly & distinctly.
  • 79th Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof. In Discoursing of things you Have heard Name not your Author always A [Se]cret Discover not.
  • 80th Be not Tedious in Discourse or in reading unless you find the Company pleased therewith.
  • 81st Be not Curious to Know the Affairs of Others neither approach those that Speak in Private.
  • 82d Undertake not what you cannot Perform but be Carefull to keep your Promise.
  • 83d When you deliver a matter do it without Passion & with Discretion, howev[er] mean the Person be you do it too.
  • 89th Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust.
  • 110th Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Ce[les]tial fire Called Conscience.

1996 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

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