genehornWhatever happened to civility?

You know what I mean – being polite, courteous, respectful.

We see increasing concern about bad behavior – in newspaper articles, magazines and on TV. We read and hear about how nasty people become when something disturbs them. We learn how discourteous, disrespectful and hateful people are to each other. Disrespect for human life abounds.

Some pundits suggest that emphasis on First Amendment rights of free speech appears to be a contributing factor because users of blogs and social networking sites can spout their thoughts in anonymity.

The problem is how to balance free speech with social etiquette.

Judith Martin, who writes the syndicated Miss Manners column, believes the online world is markedly different from the offline one. She says online people feel free to express all sorts of otherwise socially unacceptable thoughts, often without repercussion.

“Society has gotten very abrasive. In the slightest altercation, people come out swinging and swearing,” she said.

Road rage comes to mind. And, sometimes the results are tragic.

One example: Recently in Spokane, Wash., a driver was accused of using pepper spray when an elderly man in front of her stopped his car to let his disabled wife out near the front of the store. The driver allegedly approached the couple’s car screaming profanities and sprayed the 72-year-old woman in the face. The victim was treated by fire department medics. The 49-year-old perpetrator was arrested at her home.

Writing in “Living Faith” magazine, which provides reflections based on Scripture passages from daily Mass, Aileen O’Donoghue commented: “When I’m getting irritated behind the wheel in my car, I try to remember that the person in my way may just be God’s angel sent to remind me what’s really important.”

Incidents of bad behavior transcend all levels of society.

Considering our current presidential election campaigns it seems that maintaining civility has become an issue for both parties. Non-stop political ads attack the opposition mercilessly. Rude rhetoric permeates campaigns.

What can we do about it?

Recently, the Knights of Columbus, responding to what it calls “growing frustration with campaign rhetoric and the tone of the national discourse,” launched a nationwide Campaign for Civility in America, non-partisan initiative “to give voice to Americans’ desire for civility in politics.”

A series of full-page national newspaper ads encourage readers to sign an online petition “requesting that candidates, the media and other advocates and commentators involved in the public policy arena employ a more civil tone in public discourse on political and social issues, focusing on policies rather than on individual personalities.”

Based on a recent national telephone survey of 1,010 adults, not surprisingly, the Knights’ ad noted that:

78 percent are frustrated by the tone of political discourse.

74 percent believe political campaigns have become more negative over time.

66 percent believe candidates spend more time criticizing their opponents than addressing the issues.

64 percent believe negative campaigning is harming our political process.

Explaining the initiative in the Knights’ Columbia magazine, Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson said, “The American people want and deserve civility and a conversation on the issues rather than personal attack … not the personal vilification of political opponents.”

The ad urges readers to “Take the first step. Tell candidates and the media that you want a more civil discourse. Make your voice heard at www.Civilityin”

As of September, more than 15,000 people signed the petition.

But the Knights can’t do it alone. Perhaps their efforts can influence other organizations to follow their example.

The media could lend a hand.

If TV advertising can influence consumers to buy a product or service, why not use it to influence better behavior? Advertisers could utilize the power of TV to not only sell a product but to link the product to promoting ethical conduct among consumers and citizens.

For example, Miller Lite. In addition to all the superlatives voiced to sell the product, Miller could add a behavioral message. With the brewer already urging consumers to drink responsibly, Miller Lite commercials could also remind viewers to “lighten up” and be nicer not only to family members, friends and neighbors but to fellow human beings.

A MasterCard TV commercial not only urges viewers to subscribe to their product but shows a father sharing quality time with his young son. The announcer describes the scene as “priceless,” adding “for everything else there’s MasterCard.”

Conversely, some TV commercials depict violent actions – office employees knocking over and destroying fixtures and equipment, for example.

Commercials, such as suggested for Miller, could include messages aimed at reducing crime, road rage, anger, hate, discrimination.

The purpose would be two-fold: Urge the consumer to not only use the product to feel better but include a courtesy message urging viewers to make the world a better place.

The idea: identify a product with good behavior.

In church and society, we are constantly challenged to act with kindness toward others. We are living in a culture of violence and suspicion. People are less friendly and more fearful of each other.

Being nice to someone, offering a helping hand or even a smile, just trying to be friendly, may be eyed suspiciously rather than as a Christian gesture.

Whatever happened to the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you have them to do you” – as rooted in Luke 6:31?

Promoting, encouraging and exemplifying prudent, ethical behavior is everyone’s responsibility.

As we are reminded in Mt 19:19 and Gal 5:14 – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

(Horn, a retired Catholic Herald reporter, is a member of St. Roman Church, Milwaukee.)