Civility Trumped – (Published in the Providence Journal 9/23/15)


Ben Franklin advised, “Be civil to all, sociable to many, familiar with few, friend to one, enemy to none.”

My wife and I were recently shopping for a new car. We told the salesman we’d just met that we had already shopped the dealership across the street and were not impressed.

“Oh yeah, I hear they’re real a _ _ holes.” he quickly replied.
We had meant we were not impressed by the other dealer’s car offerings.

Last week we were checking into a small hotel in Rockport, Massachusetts. The man at the desk, who we learned was the owner, did not know where our hometown of Cumberland was so we told him it was about ten minutes away from the Wrentham Factory Outlets.

“The clothes they sell there are s _ _ t.” he informed us.

Two small incidents several days apart, yet, so indicative of the pervasive loss of civility in our country. I don’t believe I am a prude. However, both these merchants decided it was perfectly fine to use profanity when speaking to two senior citizens, a grandmother and grandfather, within minutes after meeting us.

In my youth, as part of the growing up process, I cussed along with the rest of my gang. By the time I enlisted in the army in 1968 I was fairly proficient in profanity. Then a funny, actually unfunny, thing happened as I was sitting in the barracks listening to the ongoing torrent of swear words which dominate army dialogue. I suddenly, and vividly, decided that the word “mother” was never intended to be the first half of a hyphenated vulgarity. The picture these vilely connected words painted was so scurrilous to me that I stopped swearing. I made no grand pronouncements, just stopped. Interestingly, I eventually noticed that the young soldiers around me cut back on their swearing as well. Oh, certainly not instantaneously, or completely, but there was a definite, detectable sea change in their vocabularies despite the fact that I never preached, or, as their squad leader commanded them to watch their language.

Post army and into my business career I continued my obscenity boycott even in the rough and tumble world of commerce and I saw the same uplifting affect on my colleagues behavior. Now, I can’t say I was a 100% abstainer, but my few slip ups had an interesting affect as well. If I threw out a heated “damn” or “hell” in a meeting I noticed everyone sat a little straighter in their chairs and their focus would increase. The one time in 20 years that my Administrative Assistant heard me drop the “f” bomb, not directed at her but an employee who had badly abused my trust, I thought she was going to melt in her chair. I quickly apologized to her.

Why do I think this is important? Because lack of civility has a corrosive effect on a country. It is a creeping disease which leads to rancor, divisiveness and myriad social ills.

Some lack of decorum appears innocent and victimless such as Vice President Biden whispering to President Obama, “This is a big f _ _ _ing deal.” when the President was signing the Affordable Care Act in 2010. But, why should such a prominent figure be so lax at an open public forum? What does it teach our nation’s youth?

Other examples are more insidious. Gangsta’ rap lyrics from the 1990’s categorized young black women as “bitches” and “whores” denigrating a whole spectrum of impressionable girls. Where was the moral outrage from black leaders and clergy?

While not yet stooping to the level of obscenity, the nascent presidential political campaigning is already one of the most uncivil in history and we have not even reached the first primary event. Donald Trump has escalated to the top of early polls seemingly partly based upon; denigrating all Mexican immigrants, disparaging a decorated P.O.W., misogynisticaly attacking a female reporter and chiding the looks of a female Republican opponent. (I am tempted to swear here.)

What can an individual do when faced with uncivil behavior? What should my wife and I have done when confronted by a trash talking car salesman and inn keeper? Seems to me there are three options.
First, you can grin and bear it.
Second, you can immediately raise your objection.
Third, you can have some patience and wait to see if there is a second indiscretion then walk away and take your business elsewhere.

Using this formula, Mr. Trump seems well past his quota and it will be interesting to see which of the above three options the electorate chooses in the upcoming primaries.

The novelist Henry James once opined, “Three things in human life are important; the first is to be kind, the second is to be kind and the third is to be kind.”

– END –

Jim Raftus lives in Cumberland. Contact: Follow:

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