The late psychotherapist Sheldon B. Kopp said, "No one is any stronger or weaker than anyone else." This profound statement is a call to civility. It means that we should never seek to elevate ourselves at the expense of others who we view as more vulnerable. Our society is riddled with examples of ways in which those who assume power try to demean and diminish those who can't sufficiently defend themselves.
This unfortunate reality calls to mind a tea party rally in which a gentleman with Parkinson's disorder was bullied by an event advocate. The perpetrator chose to hide behind his ideology and mob/group mentality to make his point to a defenseless bystander. He later apologized for his hostile, embarrassing behavior. Rather than coach a caller on how to deal with subtle forms of racism, Dr. Laura went on a tirade, using racial slurs to further victimize the victim. She later apologized for her non-therapeutic “style of relating” but maintained her point of view.
Without a call to civility, we will continue to cultivate homegrown reactionaries whose thinking and belief systems are filtered through the prism of an angry, altered reality. The "axis of evil," is not merely within the jihadist movement, but in the hearts and minds of all those who would prey upon others using power and control to intimidate those who share different values, behaviors or lifestyle.
We have lost our way. Rather than civil discourse and promoting understanding with those holding polar perspectives, we have embarked on a course to accentuate our differences and have launched a campaign to use inflammatory rhetoric and bullying behavior to muzzle those with whom we disagree. We often justify our distasteful behavior in the name of religion, politics and personal piety. The attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabriel Gifford and the causalities of innocent bystanders is an example of how a lack of civil discourse can create conditions promoting such senseless tragedy. Will Americans learn any lessons from this horrific act of violence? Will we tone down our rhetoric? Will we reinforce and reassess our gun laws? Or will we raffle off guns such the Republican Party of Pima County, Arizona did near the Tucson home of Gabriel Gifford?
Civility begins in the home and in the institutions of our society. We must teach our children to respect and value those who are religiously and ethnically different and embrace those who have special needs or are less fortunate. I believe that civility should be the most important value we impart to our children. A child’s worldview is developed during the formative years by parents who invest the time to instruct their kids through words and action.
Education is of little value if, in the midst of the learning environment, children are being taunted by their peers, and with resignation lose the will to live. This pattern is currently happening within our schools. It was psychologist Arthur Combs who said, "Perhaps the most important single cause of a person's success or failure educationally has to do with the question of what a person believes about himself." Without civility training at home or in our schools, our children will enter adulthood educated "from the neck up" as people find it convenient to prey on others who think and act differently.
We know that our children role-model what they see in the behavior of their parents. If our kids have been exposed to opinionated, hostile caretakers who disrespect the rights of others, they will emulate them. If parents teach their children to respect and embrace all people, regardless of their orientation and lifestyle, we will observe the power of civility at work in creating harmony and peace.
Right now, I believe we live in a country that hasn't been this divided since the Civil War. We will either find common ground, or further polarize our positions by using inflammatory, hateful rhetoric and behavior to intimidate our supposed "enemies."
The foundations and institutions upon which our country is rooted are being weakened due to a lack of civility. Even our religious institutions have not been spared; witness the devastating effect of child abuse within the Catholic Church and radical religious organizations demonizing others over issues such as abortion and gun rights. Religion is often used to justify our most uncivil instincts within our families and institutions.
Civility involves the promotion of multidimensional thinking. We must learn to explore issues in a non-evaluative manner and learn to assess the merits of a point of view from various perspectives. For example, if we are "pro-life," it is important that we can see the world through the lenses of those who are not in order to create civil discourse and learn to live with integrity in our position. Civility means that we are able to suspend our position as we seek to find the truth wherever it may be found. For truth-seekers, there is no preconceived notion about how the world works.
Those who embrace civility understand their own humanity, filled with frailty and weakness. They are able to connect with others who are vulnerable in their own way. To act in a civil manner, they choose not to control or change people, but to accept them without qualification, regardless of one's differences.
As M. Scott Peck explored in his book, A Different Drum, we need to refashion our culture based upon a sense of community. Community-building is an outgrowth of a pattern of creating and implementing programs based on civility. If we continue on our current course of inflaming our ideological and religious passions and distinctions, we will weaken our personal and institutional connections. Only through the process of promoting civility, will our society regain a sense of inter-relatedness and global harmony.