What Exactly Is My Problem With Civility?
Here's Something That Really Might Build Civility

Get Curious and Make Room

After worship on Sunday, Nan pulled me aside and said with a look of concern on her face, "Heather, something very painful must have happened to you as a result of the Choose Civility campaign to make you so passionate in your opposition of it." Her comment really took me aback because (a) I haven't had a painful experience of the sort that she imagained and (b) I'm not "against" the Choose Civility campaign. Rather, I think the book that the campaign was inspired takes a misguided approach to HOW we increase public civility.

Despite my "oppositional personality", my passion on this topic isn't about opposing anything. I'm passionate about building community, building relationships. Because of this passion, and because of my ministry at the Kittamaqundi Community is so centrally focused on building community in the midst of transition, I'm interested in pushing the conversation about civility in the county to a deeper level than simply listing rules that people should follow--an approach that I think is not only ineffective, but actual undermines our ability to treat each other with compassion and respect.

So, it might be helpful at this point to stop talking about the problems with Dr. Forni's approach and start talking about real examples of what actually does improve the quality of our public lives. I wrote in a previous post that my experience has led me to value two principles in this work: get curious and make room. Let me give an example of what these things look like in practice.

When Barry Newman from the Wall Street Journal was visiting a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go with him to talk with Valerie Gross, the Executive Director of the Howard County Public Library, the initiators of the Choose Civility campaign. Ms. Gross explained the origin of the campaign--P. M. Forni's book had been the focus of a staff training day. The conversation has gone so well that they decided to bring the book into their partnership with the public schools, and from their into a wider partnership in the community. It's not that Howard County is a particularly uncivil place, Ms. Gross was quick to point out to the WSJ reporter. The book was more a reminder and a refresher than a remedy to any particular problem.

This caught the reporter's interest. Surely, he prodded, there must be some concern about civility for this campaign to have caught hold as it has. Well, Ms. Gross conceded, there has been a change over the years in the ways in which some teenagers behave in the library. Some kids are unruly, and some have even sworn as the librarians.

"So what do you do when that happens?" I asked. "Do you hand them a copy of P. M. Forni's book and ask them to read up on the rules of civility? Do you remind them of the 25 rules?"

"Of course not," Ms. Gross replied. She went on to describe the approach that they have had the most success with. Each library has a "Teen Advisory Board" that meets with library staff and makes recommendations on programming for teens and discusses issues relating to teens and the library. The staff keeps an eye out for teens who frequent the library, especially those who seem to be leaders, either in a negative or positive sense. They are quick to ask those teens to join the advisory board. "We tell them that we recognize them as leaders, and we express interest in hearing their views about how we can all work together." "Does it work?" I asked. "Absolutely," Ms. Gross responded.

I was really struck by this conversation, and talked at length about it with the reporter afterwards. I wish, in fact, that it could have been the focus of his article. While the book, "Choosing Civility", may express the desire for civility in our public life, when it comes to getting to work with actually improving our local community, even the library disregards the book and its emphasis on teaching 25 basic rules.

These people are no dummies--they know that in order to get people to want to behave in a civil way, they have to feel like they are a part of a community. They have to buy into the idea that we are all creating a world together where there is room for each of us. Tell them they are rule violators, and you are telling them what they already know. They don't fit. There isn't room for them here. But get curious about what they want, what they need, what they think, who they are, and make room for them to participate in setting the agenda, making the program, and all of a sudden things shift. There isn't an US and a THEM, there is just an US.

That's not the final word on building community, but I'm convinced that it is where we start.

He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

"Outwitted" by Edwin Markham


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