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Is Civility Dead?

The Civic Commons
The Civic Commons

I’m a dad of two five-year-old girls, and we continue to work on developing the mindset of: “‘please’ and ‘thank you'”. Yes, my wife and I teach the magic words; just like we were taught the magic words; and our parents, before us, were taught the magic words.

Yet, I’m wondering if this will be the last generation who actually believe the magic words are useful and relevant. Best as I can tell, the power and relevance of “‘please’ and ‘thank you'” are gone. Civility appears to be dead.

The highest level of politics is filled with name calling and shouting matches. They are way past following the advice of being able to disagree without being disagreeable. But, it isn’t limited to what the politicians say to each other. I’m concerned with what we, as citizens, say to them, too.

I’ve experienced a very small taste of what a typical politician hears from the public because of an ironic similarity. My name is Chuck Hagele, which is really similar to Chuck Hagel. That little “e” on the end of my name isn’t the only thing that makes us different. I work to help build stronger families and restore troubled youth. He is the Secretary of Defense. I am a former Student Association President. He is a former Senator. We both lived in Nebraska.

When I lived in Nebraska, I started receiving postcards addressed to Chuck Hagel at my work. Stacks of them were delivered by the US Postal Service to me, at my job at a bank. These postcards ranged in topics, but most were telling me to do something. They were simple, fill-in-the-blank postcards with a signature, but some were rude and threatening. I thought it was funny, especially when I called Chuck Hagel’s office and they told me where to “file” them.

Now, I’m again getting communication intended for Chuck Hagel; but this time, it is coming through my Twitter account. Yes, I “tweet”; and I also have other problems, if you are interested. These messages are infrequent, but I’ve been surprised by the level of anger in the messages, as well as the effect it has on me when I read them. It requires a pause as I remember that they aren’t mad at me, they are mad at the actually famous Chuck.
Twitter Capture

It isn’t just politics. Matt Schaub, the poorly playing quarterback for the Houston Texans, had fans go to his house to confront him. And they didn’t just harass him, they took pictures of his family.  (Read the story)  At some point, going onto a person’s private property and hurling insults at them, crosses the line.

It seems like talking over, or shouting over, those that disagree is the norm. Will my girls be successful if they are civil? Do I need to focus on teaching them to be more “street-smart” and less “Sesame Street-smart”?

I want my girls to be passionate defenders, especially of those that are weak and without a voice. Yet, I don’t want them to lose their dignity and respect in the process.

So, here are my conclusions. First, civility may be dying; but for me and my family, we value: being respectful, listening even if we disagree, and standing strong for our beliefs. We may not get as far in this world, but we will have something which others crave, respect. In a world which is chasing after power, fame, and money, a simple thing like respect may seem old fashioned. But, in the end, respect is something you can’t buy – you can only earn it. It satisfies in a way that other things can’t.

So, how am I going to focus on being respectful while standing strong for our beliefs?

  1. I need to model it. Can I expect my girls to respect their mom if I don’t? Can they respect their teacher if I don’t show value and respect for their teacher? What are they learning about respect from me when I disagree with my pastor? I need to set the tone by how I treat others, especially those I disagree with.
  2. Expose them civility. The Bible tells us what to think about in Philippians 4:8, and the list includes: “what things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report, anything of virtue and praise.” I need to find specific things to back up this verse. I need to search for stories, or experiences, in which they come in contact with truth, purity, justice, and so on. Not just words, but experiences that they can think about and remember.
  3. Reduce the exposure to shouting and name calling, because it is contagious. Turn off the news. Whether it is Fox, NPR, or CNN, it all tends to profit from creating division rather than unity.
  4. Expose it for what it really is. When someone reacts in a crazy outburst of anger, it is easy to be scared by that and not process it. Instead, spend a few minutes talking about why that person reacted that way, and how it made them feel.
  5. Affirm your child, your politician, and anyone else you see who is courteous and civil in the midst of disagreement. Don’t just appreciate it in your head; verbalize it, write a note, send them a coffee card.
  6. Apologize when you blow it. As parents, we are going to make mistakes, yell, scream, or treat our kids in ways that aren’t respectful. It is at these moments that we need to be strong enough to apologize. Take a few minutes to review the series of blog posts I did on “The Six Step Apology“.

Civility may be changing. It may be dead. But, I hope that you and your family will join mine in being holdouts.

Question:  What are you doing to help your kids navigate this less civil world?