Friday, June 4, 2010

About That "Civility" Business


THAT Explains The Sudden Obsession With Ordering Other People To Behave With "Civility"

I should have known. When the smart set get all ga-ga over something (no offense or reference to Miss Lady Gaga), there's usually a best seller involved. And it usually involves either rules or breaking rules.

The Rules books are usually for how to control other people.

The Breaking Rules books are usually for how to intimidate other people.

The Rules books generate a spontaneous rash of seminars and workplace development presentations, adopted to enhance corporate culture at great expense by HR, with the result that the already polite, the timid, the shy, the anxious, and the new make a sincere effort to follow along, while the rude and ambitious toss the manual on their way out of the conference room (which they leave early due to some urgent conflict on their calendar).

And once the book has been mentioned in all the best magazines and conferences and generated an 8 foot shelf of copycat keyword books, the author is described as a "thought leader".

In this case, the book - well, the book of the moment - is "The Civility Solution: What To Do When People Are Rude" by P.M. Forni. Mr Forni has also written a couple of other books on the topic. His first, in 2002, was "Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct".

Guess which is which?

The Rules book begins with the author proposing that as a society we do a new thing, and base our behavior on "respect, restraint, and responsibility that we call civility".

The author talks about "the so-called coarsening of America".

The Breaking Rules book by page 8 is already encouraging needless aggression through sharp, accusatory questioning under the guise of "confronting rude behavior".

The phrase "the right thing to do", which, as we have learned, is corporate code for "any other reason spoken aloud may be used against the company in court", pops up right away. The author defines civility as being influenced only by our own internal prompting and it sounds such a gentle thing. But by page 7 "rude" people are derided as coercive, humiliating, demeaning, threatening...invalidating. The author claims "They bruise and wound."

Then begins to lay out his plan for "effective ways of dealing with it."

The example provided first is a librarian who accosts a patron engrossed in using one of the computers, and grills her repeatedly about a turned-off computer nearby. The polite patron explains the unused computer was so noisy it was disturbing her. Forgetting this is a library (in which quiet is the "civil" and expected behavior), the confrontive librarian turns the machine back on and issues the order not to do it again.

The librarian seems to think that prefacing this command with "please" this makes it civil.

The librarian's situation is then described as "sad" for she's seen so much disregard for others among the patrons of the library. Truly, it's enough to cause her to lose all faith in human nature.

It seems there's no incivility in the active disruption of another's concentration in order to assert control of the space that other person occupies. If rudeness is failing to pass the pepper when passing the salt, then that failure to pass the pepper gives the un-peppered one license for"confronting": berating and accusing to one's heart's content.

Of course, in the Wall Street Journal account of the sensation this movement is causing, a woman professor of Theology enlightens him of her strange (and dangerously incorrect) opinion that Jesus taught compassion without teaching rules, whereon Mr. Forni is given pause to consider that his rules might better be called "ways".

This is one of a piece with another from the 8 foot shelf, "Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy" by Stephen Carter, from 1998, who couldn't resist preaching either, albeit in that stylishly dying gracefully protestant denominational way that assures we are all "equals before God" who "share createdness".

M Scott Peck, who used to make sense and have something useful to say, seems to have started the fashion with the trite "A World waiting to Be Born: Civility Rediscovered" from 1993. Kind of a shame that a guy who started off willing to admit that polite rituals could screen genuine evil by denying the capacity for truth and emotion in another person, ended by labelling "incivility" - impoliteness - as the root of all our terrible societal troubles.

All seem to have one thing in common: they all propose that what the world needs now is nicety from everyone who disagrees with them.

They click their tongues at the obnoxious world and encourage others to make an interminable issue of the fact that the rabble, by virtue of being rabble, are "rude". How dare we rabble get to behave however we please and think whatever we wish and say whatever we believe to be the truth.

The bores of Civility would so appreciate it if we would just wait in the hall until they call for us and mind our tone and trust them to make the best decisions for us.

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