Does it seem that our world is becoming more and more rude with each passing year? Are bullies rewarded while the meek suffer in silence? Is civility an outmoded value, or is it something that can change our world for the better?
Can you make a difference in a world gone rude?
Seventy-eight-year-old Angel Arce Torres was just trying to cross a busy street in Hartford, Connecticut, when he was struck by a car that had crossed over the center line. Badly wounded, he lay on the pavement for several minutes, where a streetlight surveillance camera captured his plight. Car after car passed by the injured man, and pedestrians walked by without offering to assist.
According to a police report, Torres was left alone for several minutes, until he was spotted by a police officer responding to an unrelated call. Police arranged for an ambulance to take Torres to Hartford Hospital, where doctors found him paralyzed from the neck down.
The Hartford Courant reported this tragic story with a screaming headline, "SO INHUMANE"—and the local police chief was quoted as saying, "We no longer have a moral compass." ("Hartford missing 'moral compass'?", Associated Press, June 6, 2008).
Eventually, it was discovered that four passers-by had phoned 911 to report the tragedy while rushing along on their way. Still, why did it take so long for anyone to speak up—and why did Torres receive no help for several minutes until the police arrived?
Has something gone terribly wrong in our society when, for whatever reason, people "don't want to get involved" and are reluctant—even unwilling—to extend themselves to help others in need?
Torres died on May 11, 2009, nearly a year after the hit-and-run incident. But to the citizens of Hartford—and to many others who are concerned about the breakdown of decency and civility in modern society—he remains a powerful symbol of a world gone wrong.
Unlike what happened to Angel Torres, most displays of callousness are not matters of life-or-death. But one does not need to look very hard to find that same attitude pervading our modern world. Not only are people today less willing to help one another, they often are not even willing to treat each other with common courtesy. Look at the thriving phenomenon of "road rage." Watch bargain-hunting shoppers jostling in line before a sale. Note the ease with which "cyber-bullying" lets angry people vent their rage at one another over the Internet.
Author Stephen L. Carter summed up many Americans' feelings in his book, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy: "Although we Americans have always thought civility is collapsing, I think, this time, we might be right" (p. xi).
Yet despite media stereotypes of the "ugly American," the lack of civility is an international problem. In June of 2002, the government of the state of Victoria, Australia, stepped in to issue rules for parents of junior sports team members, responding to what the press called the "Ugly Parent Syndrome." The government's action was a result of an "increasing use of bad language and even physical aggression displayed by parents watching their children participating in junior sporting events" ("Why Civility Matters", Centre for Independent Studies Policy, Nicole Billante and Peter Saunders, vol. 18, no. 3, p. 35, Spring 2002).
In 2009, authors Alessandra Buonfino and Geoff Mulgan published Civility Lost and Found, in which they detailed the growing coarseness of British society. They noted: "A recent ITV survey concluded that Britain 'is getting ruder' with almost 90 percent of its respondents convinced that manners have deteriorated. Anti-social behaviour has been a prominent issue of public concern throughout the last decade and Britain is now reportedly the worst country for road rage in the European Union" (p. 12).
Even Canada, a country known for its civility, is afflicted. A Statistics Canada survey of 11,000 Canadians found that one in four felt concerned about the evidence of "incivility," or signs of potential crime, in their community (CBC News, July 15, 2008).
In response to this troubling phenomenon, more and more voices are calling for a renewal of civility in our personal and public lives. Websites such as collapseofcivility.org and civilityproject.org are springing up. Convention planning and public relations associations are putting more emphasis on civility and respect among colleagues and clients. The Civility Initiative, founded in 2000 by Johns Hopkins professor Dr. P. M. Forni, was constituted for the purpose of "assessing the significance of civility, manners and politeness in contemporary society."
Indeed, groups all over the world have initiated programs to reverse the tide of incivility. "These range from student movements promoting local kindness in Japan, to the Singaporean government-funded World Kindness movement promoting a World Kindness day in November and a campaign suggesting good manners for every situation. The South Korean Bright Smile movement promotes the importance of smiling and sharing smiles through programmes in schools and local communities, while the Kindness Offensive in London's West Hampstead performs small and large random acts of kindness towards strangers through the work of volunteers" (Buonfino, p. 30).
Truly, many sense that there is something wrong and are concerned that incivility must be fixed. The question is: How?
Many in the older generation think they would like to return to a simpler, gentler time from the past. But studies make it clear that incivility is not just a generational division, or a young people's problem. In How Rude! The Teenagers' Guide to Good Manners, Alex J. Packer wrote, "93 percent of the teenagers we asked in a survey on manners agree with the statement 'It's important to have good manners'" (p. 4). Some young people are challenging and rejecting the poor example of their forebears. In 2003, a group of youth leaders in the Duluth, Minnesota/Superior, Wisconsin area took Dr. P. M. Forni's book Choosing Civility and created the "Speak Your Peace" project based on its premise. It was a concerted effort to convince local leaders in city council and county commission positions to stop the derisive shouting matches in their meetings.
Not everyone believes that society used to be more civilized. "There is little agreement on the basic facts about whether British society is actually more or less civil than it was in the past. We know that murder rates are much lower than in the past, and that there appears to be much less casual violence. For the most part, Britain in even the most supposedly well-behaved periods of the past (e.g. the 1950s) was less ordered and more violent than the present, whether street brawls or child murders are counted" (Buonfino, p. 14).
Many today decry the acrimony in American politics, and for good reason. And yet, an honest evaluation shows politics has always been tainted with incivility. Almost 150 years ago, United States Congressman Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina brutally caned Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts into unconsciousness as a result of two speeches Sumner, a Republican abolitionist, had given. Just five years later, the bloodiest war ever on America's shores, the very "uncivil" Civil War, broke out, leaving over 600,000 dead. Can any generation claim to have the ultimate answer to the "civility" question?
Incivility is not a problem of youth, nor is it confined to one generation. In fact, it can be traced all the way back to the Garden of Eden—where Adam and Eve, through sin, rejected their Creator's offer of an intimate, loving relationship of trust and mutual respect. Note, too, the account of their sons Cain and Abel. Each brought an offering to God, but Cain grew angry when God rejected his offering. God asked Cain, "Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen?" With murder in his heart, he approached his brother and furiously attacked and killed him (Genesis 4:6–8).
Eventually, God saw that "the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Genesis 6:5). He destroyed the old, evil civilization with the Flood, and generations later called the patriarch Abraham and his children to walk with Him anew. Yet even in the family of Abraham's grandson Jacob, Scripture shows incivility again rearing its ugly head. Resentment against Joseph—Jacob's favorite—grew and festered in the minds of some of his brothers, until "they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him" (Genesis 37:4). Their harsh words turned into threats of violence—and to the shocking crime of selling their own brother into slavery.
Even when the very Son of God came to earth to live and walk among His creation, He was mistreated and ridiculed (Luke 8:53). At the end of His ministry, He was arrested and brought before the High Priest. "Then some began to spit on Him, and to blindfold Him, and to beat Him… And the officers struck Him with the palms of their hands" (Mark 14:65). Even as Christ hung, dying, on the stake, some blasphemed and reviled Him (Matthew 27:39, 41, 44). Why did the Son of God endure such extreme incivility against Himself? So that we might have a Savior, be forgiven, and learn true, godly civility ourselves.
Historians point out that the decline of every great civilization has been accompanied by a loss of civility. "Corrupting morals, incivility and bad behaviours were, in ancient Greece and Rome, seen as deciding factors for the collapse of civilisations. In the 1700s, Edward Wortley Montagu in his Reflections on the Rise and Fall of the Ancient Republics, suggested that 'the principal causes of the [decline of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations] was a degeneracy of manners, which reduced those once brave and free people into the most abject slavery'" (Buonfino, p. 17).
Bible prophecy warns that greater incivility is ahead. Jesus Christ predicted that in the years just before His return, human beings would betray one another and persecute true followers of God. "And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another… And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold" (Matthew 24:10, 12). As any civilization turns its back on God and His Word—the only true guide to real civility—man's inhumanity to man only escalates.
The Apostle Paul continued this theme when he also predicted the collapse of a selfish and narcissistic society in the end-times: "But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away" (2 Timothy 3:1–5)! Does that describe us today?
The bad news is that incivility will continue, and will worsen. Long-time readers of Tomorrow's World magazine understand that the modern Israelite nations have been blessed with material possessions unimaginable to past generations! And yet, because of our sins, God's blessings to Abraham will be withdrawn. Confusion and chaos are sadly ahead of us unless we individually and nationally repent.
The essence of civility is to choose to exercise the self-restraint necessary to be mindful of the needs of others, regardless of how we feel at the moment. Civility is loving others because God commands us to and because we care for them. The Apostle Paul explained this in Philippians 2: "Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus" (vv. 3–5). Are you putting on the mind of Christ? Are you learning to focus not just on your own needs, but on the concerns of others?
Paul Meier, author of Don't Let Jerks Get the Best of You, writes that when it comes to civility, most people can be divided into several categories. The most difficult to get along with are those "who truly enjoy controlling, abusing, and dominating their fellowman and not feeling any guilt about the pain and suffering they cause." Another group, only slightly better, are people who "purposefully and willfully manipulate, control, and abuse their fellowman. And, while they usually feel some guilt afterward, they are likely to do it again." The last group includes most people we run into every day. These are the "good guys" who "mean well, try to be honest, fair, and trustworthy for the most part, but who may be a bit selfish now and then or take advantage of others without meaning real harm" (p. 8).
But think about it—how much selfishness is ok? What level of incivility are we willing to accept in our life? Paul wrote that true Christians should be striving to grow "till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13). Ultimately, the problem is not the inconsiderate shopper who edged us out at the grocery store, or the driver who cut us off in traffic, or the one who sent us a thoughtless e-mail. If we are honest, we realize: the problem is us!
Will civility make a comeback in society? Some world leaders are trying to make that happen. British Prime Minister David Cameron has emphasized "common decency" as among the waning attributes he hopes to help Britain revive (see "London Calling" on page 14 of this issue). In the United States, too, "civility has been a common theme in political rhetoric. In 1998, the then Mayor of New York Rudolph Giuliani suggested that 'students (should) learn the importance of civility in their history classes' while former U.S. President George W. Bush suggested in his inaugural speech that 'civility is not a tactic or a sentiment. It is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos'" (Buonfino, p. 15). While the efforts of civic, business, and even political leaders are commendable, will they really turn the tide of incivility? Can they?
The truth is that real, lasting, godly civility across all human society will only be found when Christ rules on earth. Bible prophecy shows the Savior of the world will not only rule with a rod of iron and power (Psalm 2:9; Revelation 2:27) but also with wisdom, understanding and righteousness (Isaiah 11:2–4). Isaiah 11:6–9 gives a picture of the tranquility and harmony in the coming world. If the coming millennial reign of Christ is typified by peace and civility among even the wild beasts, how much more among human beings who are made in the image of God?
How does God define true civility? Read about how children should respect parents (Ephesians 6:2) and how parents should train—not provoke—their children (Ephesians 6:4). Find out how husbands and wives should love and respect one another (Ephesians 5:33). Read how the younger generation should honor the older generation (Leviticus 19:32). Discover what God says about resolving conflicts and giving constructive criticism (Matthew 18:15–17). Resolve not to gossip (Psalm 15:3). Speak the truth gently and kindly (Ephesians 4:15). Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–37), and compare it to how Angel Torres' neighbors treated him as he lay bleeding on that Hartford road.
Christianity is not a soft, watered-down feel-good philosophy for the weak of heart. It is a challenge to muster the faith and courage to love our fellow human beings. In his book, The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends On It, author Os Guinness correctly explains that civility must be rebuilt if we are to survive as a civilization: "Civility must truly be restored. It is not to be confused with niceness and mere etiquette or dismissed as squeamishness about differences. It is a tough, robust, substantive concept… and a manner of conduct that will be decisive for the future of the American republic" (p. 3).
Even as the world coarsens around us, we individually have a choice. We must decide which road we will take: the path that leads to greater selfishness and anger, or the one that leads to humility, service and love. Heed the call to be a strong, faithful and godly ambassador of Christ. Choose civility!