Civility is dead

The Today Show is featuring a series this week questioning, Is Civility Dead? Well, is it? Check out Today’s interview from this morning here.

I couldn’t resist, I had to write a reply to their question (see other replies here). Here it is below:

Civility isn’t dead, it just varies by region. I was raised in Iowa and moved to upstate New York (Albany) in 2006. It was rare to be greeted with “excuse me” or “thank you” in public, but people here are as “nice” as the typical Midwesterner. What differs is the degree of vulnerability people show based on their locale. If I am in an urban area such as Albany, people are more guarded: less likely to interact in the simplest of forms and more suspicious if you interact with them without obvious cause. In short, their social bubbles are different.

I am an artist and one of my central projects is the Be Nice Project, in which I make instructional documents (hand embroidered) and give them out to people to encourage civil behavior while also establishing a dialogue about manners and kindness. My blog focuses on viewing all types of experiences positively including sharing the good ones, and contemplating the insensitive actions of others.

I think that the level of civility a person has depends on their mindset. Some people speak a language that responds to negativity, sarcasm, and frankness. Others speak one which responds to positivity, praise, and tactfulness (a.k.a little white lies). In either case our society needs both to keep the other acutely aware of all the sides to every story (after all, even “kind, positive” people can be rude or mean). Our media (social, television, etc…) depend on what is “snappy” and “controversial” to get the ratings and attention, and this rewards negative behavior 3 times out of 4. The Be Nice Project–as well as The Foundation for a Better Life and The Emily Post Institute among others–operate in our contemporary landscape as anomalies, in which their sincerity is somewhat subversive in an age of irony.

My husband made a good point about civility. People haven’t changed so drastically from the idealized 1950s (though many things have certainly improved, like civil rights for minority groups). What has changed is that people feel freer to express their feelings in public, to make artwork that addresses formerly taboo topics. He theorizes (I believe rightly) that the rudeness and incivility we see is a by-product of the freedom of expression that we have gained in the last sixty years. I don’t think that necessarily makes it okay, but I believe this whole trend is like the swing of a pendulum and eventually we’ll find the middle if we keep at it.

What do you think? And, more importantly, what do you want to change in our “uncivil” society?


LINKS OF INTEREST

IS CIVILITY DEAD? Huffington Post via Dr. Jim Taylor

IS CIVILITY DEAD? Dallas News

IS CIVILITY DEAD? Another blog about the Today show feature

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