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Whatever Happened to Civility?

This is a tough subject. In my eleven short years of life here at Faded Glory, I have seen the way you humans treat one another deteriorate, big time. I am a southern dog. I was raised up by God-fearing folks who worked hard, respected and stood by their neighbors, and lived, for the most-part, by the Golden Rule. Yes, that would be Ray and Isabel Whitlow.

It wasn't that many years ago that folks gave each other the benefit of the doubt. Just a few short years ago, when driving, if Isabel unwittingly pulled out in front of someone or went out-of-turn at a four-way stop, other folks would just assume that "her mind must have been on something else, and she just failed to see them waiting." Now, folks seem to be getting more edgy. These days, if she makes a blunder in traffic, its apt to be taken as a personal affront, and Isabel would no longer be shocked to receive the 'one finger wave'. The unbelievable part of all this is that the folks who react this way aren't your typical "n'er-do-wells" or chronic malcontents; they are regular folks like Micah, Louella, and Isabel.

There used to be a three-strike rule. In days past, if you were truly trying to annoy or aggravate the other guy, it would actually take some effort. Nowadays, you don't have to try very hard at all; one strike, and you're out! One slight, one perceived affront, one mis-spoken word and folks 'go off' on you; and sometimes, it turns into all-out-war!

C'mon folks, this is the South, not the streets of Los Angeles, Chicago or New York City! No, this isn't a problem limited to one or even a few individuals or specific geographical areas; I believe that it's happening everywhere.

In the animal world, it takes centuries of evolution for time to erode our general demeanor. But, in just a few short years, human civility and decorum seem to be moving rapidly toward the proverbial trash can. Isabel thinks that television, along with it's violent content, is raising human receptivity and tolerance for aggressive behavior, while numbing sensitivity to kindness and goodwill.

Strangely enough, Micah Davenport blames our changing attitudes on air conditioning. Air conditioning?! Really? He thinks that air conditioning has closed us off to direct day-to-day contact with others. He believes that since we don't sit out on our porches and engage our neighbors or walk around our own neighborhoods any more, we are becoming increasingly isolated from direct human interaction.

In the old days, with our house windows wide open during the summer months, our neighbors knew a lot more about us than we thought they did; and, frankly, we didn't care. They knew what we were cooking, they heard our arguments, and they were immediately aware of our triumphs and tragedies. With air conditioning in our cars, we now drive with our windows closed and wave at our neighbors, but you seldom pull up, stop, and engage in conversation with them. Today, they're too busy or have to BE somewhere. We've traded our front porch rocking chairs for backyard patios, privacy fences and backyard barbecues. Your belt-lines reflect the good times, our cholesterol numbers have soared accordingly, your stress levels have increased, and your capacity for civility and patience has all but disappeared. Micah sees these trends as a major withdrawal from a polite society as we once knew it. As you become more and more socially reclusive, it's far easier for you to become estranged from your neighbors.

Louella disagrees. Louella's opinion? "Stop whining and get over it; people will be people!" Louella tends to be a very private person. Although she responds well when engaged, she will rarely initiate contact with someone she doesn't know. Louella doesn't lack civility; but she is shy, and she just might be the "poster child" for reclusive behavior and wall building. She is certainly on my list of friends and benefactors, however.

If you want my point of view (I realize you didn't ask), I believe that its all about our mobility. It's not that our population is becoming mean-spirited, but you are so mobile that you really dont get to know those around you any more. Humans are busy and no longer dedicate any time to get to know or engage one another. Even direct eye-contact is becoming rare.

I was surprised to learn that many of you cannot remember EVER shaking hands with one of your neighbors. Hugging them? Completely out of the question! As a culture, the human race isn't becoming sociopathic; it is becoming socially pathetic. Let's face it; most of us see more folks on television in a week than we do in person. I'm only a dog, but I believe that we are reaching a point when we can no longer "put a face" on the other guy; and that's tragic!

In the animal world, life or death among animals just isn't that big a deal. In our world, it is, and always has been, "survival of the fittest." Attrition takes its toll every day. But humans have supposedly risen above the animals, and if the human culture heads in that same direction, you've got real problems somewhere down the line.

Isabel and Micah often talk about the good old days when the writings of Emily Post -- books about politeness, manners, and good taste, could be found in most homes. These books introduced and supported credible models for table manners and polite behavior. They weren't fiction. They were realistic examples of how enlightened members of your culture were expected to operate in various social settings. In many homes in the mid-1900s, Isabel says that these books were often found near the family's bible, even though they weren't considered to be religious in nature. Ask, "Who was Emily Post?" today, and a scarce few will know.

Micah also feels that the decline of our agrarian society and corresponding surges in urban growth have most certainly contributed to your current state of being. Just 100 years ago we grew our food. Each family "put by" for the winter and was sustained during the winter months by their annual harvest. Neighbors helped each other in times of trouble. We watched out for each other and were there for each other in times of trouble and tragedy.

Having become an industrialized nation, many of us just pay others to do things for us; raise our barns, breed our livestock, plant, harvest and process our food, provide and repair our appliances, look after our elderly, and provide hospices for our dying. We no longer touch our neighbors or, in fact, each other in times of need because we rarely become aware of these needs in the first place. We sit in our little kingdoms and read about world tragedies; we are sheltered and protected from want and the desperate needs of others. Many of us have forgotten how to communicate!

A few weeks ago, when Randy Tipton was hospitalized for a stroke, Isabel heard about it at church. She and Louella went about preparing several casseroles to drop off at the Tipton Farm so that Randy's wife Lisa could spend more time at his hospital bedside and less time preparing meals for their kids. When they arrived at the Tipton Farm, they weren't surprised to see other neighbors doing the same thing. Isabel said that it was like a "small town traffic jam!" One hundred years ago, Isabel might probably have joined in a vigil at the church or 'saddled up the mare' to go and see him.

Women who quilted, families that regularly attended church, paperboys, mailmen, milkmen, and even our local telephone operators once processed the local news much faster than today's newspaper, radio or TV. Bad behavior back then was personified by the Hatfields and McCoys; but even back then, folks could expect civility from others even if they didn't agree on lots of things. I won't even attempt to identify any degree of civility in today's political environment! Reagan and Carter - like oil and water!

So, what is the answer to this mess? You humans are in charge of this world, and the responsibility belongs to you. Several religions claim that sin and human complacency are naturally endemic to our society, and that a terrible fate will soon visit itself upon us.

I'm just a dog, and I don't see the answer coming as the prediction of any specific religion or a mandate from above. I also don't think that, by nature, people are innately combative. I think that your bad behavior will finally show up as a nasty blip on our national radar, and it will beget reactive social reform long before you finally hit 'rock bottom.' Of course, I am an optimist.

Until that time comes, maybe widespread anger- management therapy might be considered. Whether you like it or not, you folks were imbued with, and born into, the human race. You and your species were given the power to engage, evolve and endure, and you are the ultimate mortal 'change agents' for our planet. Pretty heady responsibility, eh?

This power to engage, love and nurture is inherently yours to wield - or not. Each of you were blessed with the necessary tools and given a world in which to use them. Remember, civility starts with each individual; so, what the Hell are you waiting for?

© 2010-2011 David Johnson, All Rights Reserved