Third Sunday of Easter
Get Curious and Make Room

What Exactly Is My Problem With Civility?

On the front page of this morning's Wall Street Journal there is an article by Barry Newman entitled "Be Nice, Or What? Fan of Dr. Forni Spread Civility". The subtitle reads, "25 Rules Don't Go Over Well With Everybody; Naysayer in Maryland". The "naysayer" happens to be me.

If you're a part of the Kittamaqundi Community and/or a regular reader of this blog, you won't be surprised to read that I am irked by Howard County's "Choose Civility" campaign which is based on a book that lists 25 rules to guide our public behavior. But I was surprised when a Wall Street Journal reporter called me about a month ago to talk about civility. Turns out he had found me while doing web searches with phrases like "P M Forni stupid" and "P M Forni crazy". He found lots of material, he told me, but almost all of it was anonymous. Except for my blog.

The reporter, Barry Newman, and I had several very long phone calls followed by a day and a half of in person conversation. By the time Barry left, he had enough material for a book, but he warned me that he was only going to be able to write a short article. I think that what he ended up writing is a very good "teaser" into a fairly complex argument, and I hope that Dr. Forni and I will have more opportunities to talk about his approach to improving the quality of our public life. In the meantime, I thought I'd make a few things a bit more clear than they are in the WSJ article:

I am not against civility. As Dr. Forni put it in our conversation, being against civility is like being against "mother's milk". My "oppositional personality" makes me wonder what the other side of an argument might be, especially arguments that everyone seems to agree with at first blush. But the argument I have with Dr. Forni is not over whether it's okay to be a jerk or not. It's about HOW we can best improve and support civility in our public life, not whether we should be civil with each other.

I think that's a fair argument to have, and if there's any merit to the "Choose Civility" campaign, it is that it might provoke conversation about what factors shape our public life. According to P.M. Forni, our public life is shaped by rules. There was a day when those rules were implicit to our public lives--everyone knew them in part because everyone knew each other. We lived among our extended families, among people who were a lot like us and who shared an understanding of how to act. In communities like that (like Goshen, Indiana, perhaps when Valerie Gross was growing up there at the end of the baby boom) no one needs to write the rules down because everyone knows them.

These days, many of us don't live in communities like that. We move around a lot more, and we live in communities composed of people from a lot of different cultures, countries, backgrounds and viewpoints. We don't necessarily have a shared sense of how to behave in our public lives. Some people are louder than other people think is necessary. Some people let their kids do things in public that other people find objectionable. Some people use public spaces in ways that other people would never do. This can make living together tough at times.

So what to do? One approach would be for those of us who "know" how to act to write down all the rules explicitly and try to teach other people to follow those rules. To P. M. Forni's great credit, he is in favor of persuading people to follow the rules of civility by appealing to their self-interest, and he is firmly opposed to enforcing these rules through codes of conduct, etc.

But to my mind, there is a huge hazard to this response. When we make all those rules explicit, write them down on bookmarks that are handed out to everyone in the library and in the high school, then we encourage everyone to notice whether or not someone is following the rules in public. We become--without even wanting to do so--regulators and enforcers of the rules. Reinforcing explicit rules moves us away from welcoming each other and moves us towards tisk-tisking every time we see someone doing something they're "not supposed to do".

Incidentally, this is what Jesus ran into all the time. He was in constant argument with people who valued adherence to the rules over all else, and was always subverting rules in order to respond with compassion. Think, for example, of his fights over healing people on the sabbath. His argument was not against the sabbath--he clearly supported the value of rest and renewal. But he was convinced that the demands of compassion trumped the demands of the rules that governed the sabbath. So to with the story of the Good Samaritan. The people who walk past the bleeding man on the side of the road do so because of the social rules that governed their behavior at the time. But the Samaritan violates the rules quite blatantly and responds with compassion, and its his behavior that Jesus holds up as a model to his disciples.

I think there are better ways to support civility in our public life than rules. I think the basis of right behavior--in public and in private--is compassion. So then, the question becomes, how to we encourage compassion? How do we grow compassion in our community?

As the Wall Street Journal article mentioned, I think there are specific things you can do. I summarized two of these things as "Get curious" and "Make room", and I will write a bit more about these two principles in the coming days.

But there is another thing that helps compassion, one that Barry Newman alludes to in the article but which deserves much fuller examination. The city that I live in was created by a visionary developer named Jim Rouse who believed that the WAY we live with each other can actually shape the way we behave towards each other. In other words, the values that guide our common life can actually be communicated by how our streets and houses and town centers are arranged.

Jim Rouse didn't make things easy for himself here. He built a suburban town which included affordable, mid-range and expensive housing, all mixed in with each other. He did some very explicit social engineering to make sure that black folks and white folks would live right next to each other. So from the start, he knew that the people who lived in Columbia wouldn't necessarily share the same implicit rules governing their common life.

So he built into the community lots of things that cause you to "accidentally" run into your neighbors all the time--at the mailbox, on the bike path, at your town center, at the gym, at the playground. He believed that you could make a successful community where people DON'T have the same social background by making sure that we recognize each other as neighbors. The basis of civility, he believed, was neighborliness.

Dr. Forni believes this too. In every interview I've read with him, he underscores that anonymity greatly increases the tendency towards incivility. That's why we curse people from our cars who we'd never curse face to face. But he doesn't seem to be interested in addressing the cause of incivility--as Barry Newman quotes him saying, he thinks communities like Columbia were "utopian" but not actually effective. He only recommends remedies for the symptoms of our loss of relationship with our neighbors. This is the heart of my argument with him.

Like Jim Rouse did 40 years ago, and like Jesus Christ did 2,000 years ago, I'd rather cure the disease and not just treat the symptom.


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Matt J.

I too found this blog by looking for info on Dr. Forni's idea, since I too have to be skeptical of his program. However, Kird-Davidoff seems to have based her entire critique of Forni's program not on its genuine faults, but on a questionable, even doubtful understanding of Jesus's attitude to works and rules. And as long as this doubtul understanding holds sway, her own efforts to "cure the disease instead of the symptoms" are doomed to failure.

I also find it both ironic and telling that Kirk-Davidoff thinks she notes so acutely the fundamental flaw in Forni's program, but holds up Rouse's program -- though this program is even _more_ focused on "curing the symtpom instead of the disease".

Rouse's program has more in common with Forni's than with Christ's. And Christ's 'program' was _not_ intended to cure the problem of incivility, it was meant to call men to repentance and open the door to salvation.

This is a _very_ different task. It is important for a Christian not to confuse them. After all, surely no one will claim that Christ was being 'civil' when he called the Pharisees "white-washed tombs".

Yet if you follow Christ's program of repentance and salvation, much of today's incivility will be instantly recognized as violations of the commandments.

But this brings me back to another of Kirk-Davidoff's incompletely developed and expressed points: now that we know that such-and-such incivil act is against the commandments of Christ, how to we apply this knowledge to ourselves, and avoid judging our neighbors? By embracing the _full_ meaning of the word 'repentance'! For as St. John Climacus pointed out so long ago, the genuinely penitent is like a man who has just heard himself sentenced to death, whose attention is focused solely on himself, but not in a selfish way; he pays no attention then to the sins of others, but only to his own.

Another reminder of this same principle: perhaps if her parish were on the right calendar, her parish would still be doing the Lenten Prayer that spells this out so well;)

O Lord and Master of my life, give me not the spirit of sloth, meddling, love of power and idle talk.

But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to judge my brother. For blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Note the brilliant connection he makes: to take your eyes off your own faults, judging your brother is denial of His blessedness.

Laura Shoemaker

I would be interested, Matt J, in your description of Jesus's "program of repentance and salvation." Really? Sounds formulaic.

I think, at the root of all of the discussion, is a question of how we are called to treat one another. I feel like the argument is about motivation. Why do we treat one another well...because we are told to or because we genuinely care for the person in front of us.

My complaint with Howard County's campaign is that they've taken what could be a compelling discussion of values and turned it into an economic development campaign of sorts...or so it appears across the county line in Montgomery :)

Mary Kate Murray

Laura, can you say more about your perspective that it's an economic development campaign? That's a new concept to me and I am curious to understand your thinking. Thanks in advance.

charles powell

Rules and my inadequate words:

When I first read the beautiful lenten prayer that Matt J posted, I was touched. But the more I think about the subject of why I act or react to the events in my daily life, I don't think it is because of a formula, as Laura points out.
I recall right after 9-11 how almost everyone was kinder and more compassionate. There was a solidarity in our country---a reaction and action coming from the horrific events of that September Tuesday morning. The compassion faded--much too quickly--I think because nothing had 'changed' within the psyche of individual persons.
So---I think the question I must confront within myself is what brings about change within me that compels me to love my fellow human beings? I have some thoughts which I will share later--I would welcome others.
Charlie Powell

Laura Shoemaker

I should reframe my's not a complaint. It's an observation. Right now, as one not engaged in the dialogue in HC, I see a bumper sticker, a slogan, and reference to a specific geographic location. From my place as casual observer, it looks like this is a way to position HC in a market...a market of workplaces, a market of schools, a market of communities... Launched at a time when the market has taken a dramatic downturn.

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