The Collapse of Civility

             Three times in a week, it’s happened on the big stage with everybody looking.

          Joe Wilson  + During the President’s health care address before a joint session of Congress, Rep. Joe Wilson took exception to one of the President’s assertions and shouted, “You lie!”


serena-williams-foot-fault-tantum-photos  + During the closing game in her semi-final match against Kim Clijsters, Serena Williams was called for a foot-fault and simply went off in a rage – beating her racquet against the court, cursing and threatening to “stuff the ball down the judge’s (expletive deleted) throat.”


+ During the MTV Video Music Awards, Taylor Swift was delightedly accepting her award for best female video when rapper Kanye West grabbed the mic from her and began to insist that Beyonce should have won the award instead. 

  What in the name of Miss Manners is going on? 

            For some time, we have seen the gradual loss of basic manners in our society.  Examples? Snide speech and put-downs become the norm.  Rude drivers cut you off and then flip you the bird.  People have open conversations in movies.  All sorts of things are just plain rude

But now, in the culture-defining areas of politics, sports and entertainment, we have high-profile examples that are more than simply rude; they demonstrate the near-collapse of civility.  Civility involves manners, but it is more.  Civility contains the word “civil”, which shares roots with the word “civic”—and at the core, they both have to do with relationships. 

And that, I think, is the problem.  Civility is collapsing because individuality is expanding.  We have so elevated the primacy of individual expression that any consideration of another is, well…not considered.  This seems to be the unconscious (maybe) thought process: whatever I feel or think at any moment deserves (even needs) to be fully expressed in words or actions at that moment, regardless of the impact on anyone else’s feelings or thoughts and the broader consequences—because that expression makes me feel better or right or comfortable or vindicated.  

Why are we struggling with the rise of me?  And why is it getting worse?

            Civility is collapsing because we have fed the monster of me and starved the soul of consideration for others. We have fed the monster of selfishness by raising our children to preen their self-esteem more than accept genuine discipline; by building larger houses and buying a television for each room so we don’t have to share space or the remote; by applauding ostentatious possessions, laughing at outrageous rudeness, and redefining simply bizarre behavior as merely interesting; by resisting forgiveness and by constructing individualized platforms from our computers and web site preferences, cell phones, and cars that enable us to shout to the world, “I am somebody worth adjusting to—right now!”

            In Biblical terms, this is sin gone viral.  At its root, sin always has “I” in the middle.  If civility is collapsing and people demonstrate no concern for others, it is because they value themselves more. In a weird sort of shared schizophrenia, we all stand center-stage, in the spotlight and applaud each other being at center-stage, in the spotlight.

             How can we begin to restore civility in our society?  Well, the Bible offers a lot of wisdom about relationships with others.  There’s the Golden Rule: “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” (Matt.5:12) Or this: “in humility consider others more important than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil.2:3-4)

But none of that works without changing the heart from “me” to “we”. Moralism won’t work. Values education won’t do it. Bumper-sticker sloganeering won’t do it. Political initiatives? No, we can’t. Church involvement?  Nope.

The heart only changes that profoundly when Jesus transforms it with His sacrificial love. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us…while we were still sinners.” (1 John 3:16, Rom.5:8) Only the heart that has been loved like that can break the addiction to self and be considerate of others.  “We love because He first loved us.”  (1 John 4:19)

Yes, civility is indeed collapsing all around us.  But Christ can change hearts by His love, and the overflow of that love into our relationships– in even the simplest ways—can restore civility to our society, one life at a time.


4 responses

  1. Knowing all too well that my individual expression often overpowers my conscience and will to please God, you are, as always… poignant, sincere, and full of truth.

  2. Nice post–but did you notice all 3 incidents you mention were broadcast on TV and then posted online and shown over and over and over.

    The Media isn’t just the message it FRAMES the message–which makes for better “tape”–Calling the Prez a liar in 5 seconds or thoughtfully debating Health Care?

    I think this all started a while back with those mindless political shows where panelists had 10 seconds to yell out a position, etc.

    When you’re limited to a 10 second sound bite, ad hominem attacks will predominate. Why do the News agencies–Liberal and Conservative beat this dead horse to death instead of thoughtful dialogue and discussion of the issues–becuase Serena going off, Wilson yelling at Obama, etc makes for better Video.

  3. I think you’re right– the media (both mainstream and social) is complicit in the collapse of civility. Reducing people and issues to a caricature is a much easier (translate: lazier) way to boost ratings.

  4. Forgot to add–Mockingbird referenced this oped piece on the NYTIMES:

    See this interesting statement comparing the WWII generation with the boomers:

    But that humility came under attack in the ensuing decades. Self-effacement became identified with conformity and self-repression. A different ethos came to the fore, which the sociologists call “expressive individualism.” Instead of being humble before God and history, moral salvation could be found through intimate contact with oneself and by exposing the beauty, the power and the divinity within.

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