On the Corner – “Civility”

by Bob Docter

Civility has all but disappeared from American political discourse, and it seems in jeopardy in many interpersonal relations. I suspect life in a free society has made interpersonal respect always difficult to come by. Placing blame, however, for increased interpersonal disrespect is not a wise use of our energy. We receive the message and can choose our own interpersonal style in response.

Saying this, however, does not minimize the broad and powerful impact mass media has on this culture, and thus, our interpersonal style. Much of what we see and read is very positive. It instructs us, entertains us, sometimes inspires us, and reinforces values taught within our culture throughout the ages. We see people working on behalf of those who need help. We see kindness and consideration. We are immersed in acts of heroism, caring, compassion and concern. We enjoy good humor, powerful drama, wonderful music, and compete with contestants on game shows.

That’s not all we see. Some stuff presents unfortunate modeling. This, in itself, is not bad. We need negative examples to learn the value of the positive ones. We, however, must engage in the learning process.

Unregulated noise

Yes, incivility has been with us for a long time. What’s different today is the plethora of noise from very loud speakers largely unregulated by rules concerning interpersonal civility.

A number of fairly new media sources provide the fuel. We see it, hear it, read it and get taught in the process that it’s okay to act toward each other in the manner modeled. A lot of it comes from cable television; some of it arrives from Internet bloggers who simultaneously seem ignorant of the meaning of freedom and believe they have the “right” to say anything they choose; and by politicians trying desperately to “look tuff, sound tuff and be tuff” on their opponent in order to get their 75 seconds of media coverage.

We have always had some hyperbole in news reporting—exaggeration for the sake of readership. Most of us recognize that it represents the worst of journalism. Moreover, with the 24-hour news cycle demanding a “grabber” every 12 minutes, too many producers resonate to the sound-bite that will trigger emotion—not intellect, not thoughtful examination of an issue, not rational analysis of a point of view. In the process, they trigger the worst parts of us and stimulate fear, which we turn into anger. They model how to ridicule and attack targets. They give us permission to escalate the hostility among us, and they teach us the words to use while doing it.

Albert Einstein, writing about nuclear development, wrote: “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” The same message describes some of our uses of the new massed media.

“We have met the enemy and they are us.”

Sources of input

Let’s not kid ourselves, we receive interpersonal input from a number of sources on any given day. How we communicate with one another depends solely on choices we make about what we will do. What influences us? Who do we seek to emulate? What prompts us to choose one example over another? Why do we move toward elevating emotion over intellect? What thrills us about escalating incivility?

Interpersonal learning starts in the home. We take to the playground the values that are modeled there. Hopefully, we also learn about ourselves, about some of our own needs in interpersonal relations and how to get them met.

I often teach a course in leadership of a therapy group to graduate students learning to be therapists. I focus on interpersonal learning as a principal means to achieve therapeutic movement. During the initial stages of the group, the members discover that certain needs must be met in order to move forward.

Now, assume that your social scene is a giant group in which you are member and participate. Before you can participate effectively, you must address certain needs. Failing to resolve this matter will result either in “fight” or “flight.”

First, you need to feel safe—to achieve a feeling of security within the group—to know that you will be protected, that any risks you take will not result in ridicule or abandonment. In the process you learn through interpersonal feedback how to assist others in satisfying their need for safety.

Additionally, you need to begin to develop a sense of your identity in the group—how you’re perceived by others. Then you need to feel respected. Other members may confront you, but they do it respectfully because you have explained to them that this is the way you wish to be treated.

In any interpersonal disputes you demonstrate respect in your relationship with others.

Lastly, you need to feel that you have control over your own interaction and can provide feed back to others concerning your desires about how you are treated.

Be careful

There you have it—if one does not feel safe, secure, respected, identified, and having some control over the manner in which you are treated, you may move toward argumentation, disrespect, name calling (fight) or withdraw into silence and no growth (flight).

Be careful what you learn and from whom you learn it.

Sharing is caring!