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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Iconic Xer.

Piping in from a perspective of generational theory, Dr. P.M. Forni and Ms. Kirk-Davidoff are right on. Forni, born in 1951, is a Boomer. Boomers (the Prophet archetype) tend to have a deep capacity for vision, values and religion. They are able to identify and hold a moral compass, but tend to fall short on actual execution.

That's just fine in generational dynamics. Gen Xers (the Nomad archetype), the generation to which Kirk-Davidoff belongs, tend to grudgingly allow Prophets the moral compass role. Then, in accompaniment to the identified vision, they provide the roll-up-your-sleeves attitude and do the dirty work of making things happen. Mostly unnoticed and unrecognized.

So, from my perspective and interest in seeing cultural dynamics through a generational lens, both Forni and Kirk-Davidoff are spot on. Different, but complementary.

Rock on.

J.D. Abolins

Thank you for the blog posting. It is helping me to better understand the "civility" issues mentioned in the WSJ article.

Growing up dealing with various cultures, one of the problems I've seen with rules-based civility is how it fails to consider external approaches to civility varies greatly around the world and through time. The external rules are not the same and, if we look at civility superficially, we can interpret other approaches as rudeness.

People who become enforcers of what they consider teh norms of civility can end up assuming that other modes of civility are merely rudeness rather than seeing the underlying intentions.

Rules based civility can be used to stifle valid criticism and dissent while the civil avenues for complaint are rigged to be futile. I think of Ewan MacColl's song, Ballad of Accounting, as a powerful picture of forms of civility that oppresses. The lyrics can be read at

Back to pondering a bit more on the civility topic.

Ethel Ware Carter

I’d agree with you for the most part but the slogan choose civility reminds me of the fact that love is not a feeling it is decision supported by action. Acting civilly assumes the equality and humanness of the other and expresses a decision to treat others gently. Until we are perfected- the Kingdom comes- are able to view every person with compassion we’d better choose civility. When we are irritated, when we are in a bad mood, impatient, when we think the other person is plain crazy- civility gives us a pattern of behavior. It is a way of making room! (Because we live in such a diverse world we’d better shorten the list of rules- what means welcome in my culture may not in yours.) I can decide to be civil- decide to act in a certain way that will enable me to live with grace and gentleness along my path. Why attack when you could have expanded the notion? Until we can cure the disease let's do treat the symptoms- 1. maybe we'll curb the infestation. 2. If we stress the positive, emphasize what is right- the negative will become unimportant maybe irrelevant as the energy moves to the positive. 3. Maybe we will become our actions- the old live "it and then you will understand it."

Ruth Smith

I'm not a regular blogger, so I'm going to sneak in a comment about Spirituality and Art as a way to move beyond Civility to Compassion. We had a beautiful reminder of that this week-end from the Columbia Orchestra's concert "Embracing the Millions." The music was not only wonderful but we had a very helpful introduction to some meanings of Beethoven & Schiller's Ode to Joy. "joy unites the world's people...what custom has divided, joy can bring together...the arts are a powerful way to teach empathy."
Then we had drama, readings, and choral music leading up to the Symphony.
Thank you Columbia Orchestra!!!
In my mind, empathy is closely connected to compassion.
I also went this week to a fun high school musical at Marriott Ridge High School. I wish that all the kids in Baltimore City and Washington DC .... and the world had opportunities to participate in the arts. I celebrate people who are working to make that happen.

Christian Beyer

I discovered you through an article on Missio Dei and am pleased to discover two things right off the bat:

First - now I know what all those bumper stickers mean. Not knowing was driving me (slightly) nuts. (Yet I never took the time to check it out - I stopped taking bumper stickers seriously some time ago).

Two - Kittamuquundi Community Church. I think I might like to meet some of you folk sometime.

Nice blog. Nice article. You've hit the nail on the head; rules equal religion and religion overpowers the Gospel.

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