Maintaining Civility in our Uncivil Country

Hello from a dining room table.

Two weeks from tonight most of us will be glued to some sort of media trying to understand which person we will call our President for the next four years. Of course, the expectation that we might find something reminiscent of 2000 is relatively high, and the worry about what will happen on the other side of the election is palpable, to a degree that goes beyond anything I have experienced in my life time. Regardless the day, the time of the day, or where I am, I am being bombarded by text messages, emails, even phone calls trying to cajole me into donating more money. Sometimes the texts seem kind and sincere. Sometimes they are trying to guilt me into believing that my lack of response to every single text means I am somehow single handedly destroying the possibility that what I hope will happen. I am tired of it all beyond anything I ever imagined possible. I actually find politics fascinating. The very fact that we are arguing so vociferously (and viciously) about States’ Rights versus Federalism some 240 years later demonstrates how difficult it is for these two philosophies to co-exist.

I know from my own studies in history as a student at Dana and beyond that much history is generally written by the victors. In addition, we as Americans have a sense of moral superiority in what we do, be it locally, nationally, and most certainly, globally. While many will find it surprising that I might find it possible to agree with the current administration, there is more truth to President Trump’s assertion that what we have done has not always been as good as we might say. Of course, he also noted, in terms of foreign policy, “I’m the only one — believe me, I know them all, I’m the only one who knows how to fix it” (NYT 26Apr2016). Foreign policy is incredibly complex. Things we do with our allies can often occur in a total 180 from other things we espouse. There are numerous examples of this and often it has to do with human rights violations, our support of dictators when those dictators serve our global purpose (only to come back and bite us later), or how we provide financial or military aid to someone less than stellar because it serves or national interest. How does this occurs as regularly or unabated as it does? Because the great majority of us pay little or no attention to most of this unless we are personally affected (and that assumes we even do something then). This really gets to the point raised in my title. We want to believe we are fundamentally civil. We have subscribed to this myth for most of our nation’s history. So what am I saying? We are naive? We are misguided? We are delusional? To some extent, there is truth in all of these things, but I will suffice it to say, we are flawed humans and we are not, by nature altruistic. We do not do things for the simple goodness of being good. For those who believe in a God, it is simply saying we are sinful. For those who would not believe in some higher power or God, regardless what you call that entity, it is we are simply flawed mortals with a fundamental selfishness that connects to our need for some sort of self-preservation. I realize this does not sound all that optimistic, but I do believe we also can act with some basic decency when we rise above our individual frailties.

That is probably what is needed now in our divisive national conversation, our disparate and selfish actions which seem to characterize what has become the norm when we disagree with the other. As I continue to write today, we have just experienced the two highest Covid death count days. Please know this: I too am tired of wearing a mask; I too am sad that some of my best friends and colleagues have not really met in person normally since March. I too have had my entire life rearranged with a postponed sabbatical and no sense of if it might even happen next fall. And yet I wear my mask. For me it certainly has dual purpose. I am that compromised person, but I am more concerned for others than myself. I do not want to be the transmitter of this virus to anyone regardless of age, gender, economic class, or health situation. Furthermore, while I am not desirous of catching this terrible virus in any way, shape, or form, dying is not what scares me, it is the long-term consequences, which we are still figuring out, that scare me. What stuns me is the selfishness of our collective and individual natures. I know this has become political, but it simply shouldn’t be. The politics of health should not exist. I understand there is an economics of health care. I know it too well. As I have noted before, when I was in graduate school emergency surgery to save my life was not covered by my health insurance because I had not had it long enough and the surgery was for complications of my Crohn’s, a pre-existing condition. Think about that for a moment. I had insurance and they did not have to cover me. That is wrong. I had not gone without insurance, and I was required to change plans. Then they could still tell me “not our monkey, not our circus.” If I had a quarter for every email, text, or contact I have received about the upcoming election in just the last two months, I would take an incredible vacation. Let me also say I am well aware that what happens in Denmark, Norway, or other social democracies in terms of health care is not comparing apples to apples, but living without insurance because it is unaffordable is unconscionable. I still believe in private sector health insurance and choice for those who can afford it, but having no option for those who cannot afford it is not reasonable. For those who have nothing, we who do pay for them. About three years ago I spent the majority of a day in the ER and was admitted for observation for one night until noon the next day. The cost of that day was almost 15 grand. I had a $200.00 ER copay that is to be waived if admitted. When I got the bill for the $200.00 later, I questioned it. I was told because I was released before noon, I was not in the hospital long enough. This sort of stuff is incomprehensible to me.

What does it mean to be civil to each other? I do not believe it means we should squelch debate. I do not believe it means we should not question things we believe to be fundamentally or ethically suspect. Civility is simple respect. The difficulty is that it is anything, but simple. Civility and/or respect or both earned and learned. How has incivility become the rule, the norm? This is an paramount question because the consequences of incivility go way beyond the individual problematic encounter. Civility requires a concerted effort to understand the other. We do not understand everything they have experienced. We do not understand how their past experiences have affected they expectations. At times like that, it requires restraint, something that seems to be in small supply in our current national process. Almost every animal learns to manage equity in their microcosmic systems, and this is not limited to humans. Civility is often dependent on balance. So what has contributed to our lack of balance, which has culminated in an profound national/global attitude of suspicion, contempt, and, if you will, uncouthness, insolence, surliness, and indecency? As it seems to be the case, too often I must offer some disclaimer, but that is not ironic in light of the topic at hand. I use social networking pretty extensively (at least for a 65 year old), and that is, in part, because it is what I teach. Yet, social judgments, which occur with every post regardless the platform, are almost instantaneous. There is little in terms of social cue, providing ample opportunity for misinterpretation. I experienced this recently with a close friend, one known to me for more than 8 years. Our text thread back and forth disintegrated into two people being displeased with the other. Finally a phone call cleared some of that up. To their credit, they asked, “Could you try not to see the worst in something?” It was a fair, but difficult question to be asked. Certainly there were reasons for him to request that. The argument from my side could be there were experiences that might have moved me into that sort of interpretation, but his concern was valid. I made assumptions. And this is on the individual level. What happens when the social platform and comments come from our leaders?

Before we go down that road, I would note that I believe anyone can choose to use or not use social networking. Almost all politicians, regardless of party or leaning do so. Too often the difficult with our leaders is they will tweet talking points, bullet points, or some other sound byte that is more complex than what is posted. I believe this is the real difficulty with Twitter. In addition, we have a willfully illiterate society. It is not that they cannot read, but rather they refuse to do so. In addition, we must question if our leaders listen to us or react more to the perceived values of a particular group. Power is often related to the finances of someone or someone(s). The difficult is when we focus on the finances, the ethics of the situation are often forgotten or ignored. When one disregards the ethics of something, the values/morals upon which those ethical mores are based are also jettisoned. Too often people believe ethics is a noun, I think we would be better served if we would see it as a verb. We act ethically. It is something we do and as such it has consequences. Pretending to support values or feigning some ethical superiority is the epitome of moral hypocrisy. Most of our struggles are not against the other, they are internal and our inability to curb our own selfishness, our own wanton disregard for the greater good.

As I think about this semester’s focus on identity, it is time we need to re-examine ourselves and our own identity, both individually and societally. There is little doubt we have difficulties, but we also have 240 years of democracy, albeit imperfect at best. It is not a cancel culture issue to be honest about our shortcomings in the past. It is not canceling culture to admit we have systemic concerns from equity to economics, from justice to caring for the other. As most historians will tell you, history is written by the victors. As I have noted from time to time this past couple of years, it is time to be honest with our past, but also to consider what kind of country we hope to be. I know that some are content with where we are and believe we are on the right path. I do not. That does not mean there is nothing of value on the other side. It does not say I believe that any one side has all the answers. It is almost always somewhere in the middle. Yet, when I believe the wolf is in the area (or in the house), it is time to do something. I believe the church tower bell is ringing once again and the alarm is real. I know there are those on the other side who claim the same. There is one way to manage that and it is 10 days away. VOTE! The issue of control and looking at the person in the mirror.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Published by thewritingprofessor55

I am a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and the director of and Professional and Technical Writing minor, a 24 credit certificate for non-degree seeking people, and now a concentration in Professional Writing and Digital Rhetoric. We work closely to move students into a 4+1 Masters Program with Instructional Technology. I love my work and I am content with what life has handed me. I merely try to make a difference for others by what I share, write, or ponder through my words.

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