Whatever Happened to Civility

January 22, 1995


Whatever Happened to Civility?
I try to keep all of you in mind when I pick a topic for a sermon, but I have to confess that my own need for therapy played a part in the choice of this one. I have not been able to shake off my dismay at a shocking example of incivility on a popular television comedy routine about a week ago. There are many things I like better than watching Saturday Night Live so I did not see this particular program, but someone I know well did see it and told me how the First Lady of the United States was referred to openly and without apology as a “bitch. I suppose someone out there will wish I were less blunt and spoke delicately of the “B” word, but that would soften my anger, and I don’t want it softened! I am amazed at the loss of respect and courtesy in American public life, especially in politics, and since civility is recognized as a Christian virtue in the Scripture we claim to honor, I consider this topic not only a form of self-therapy, but a matter of importance for everyone in this room.
Many of us saw the mother of Newt Gingrich coaxed into admitting on national TV that her son had called Hillary Clinton by that ugly name. I think that shoddy little moment didn’t add much to the quality of American life, but what Newt chooses to call Mrs. Clinton in his private life is his own business. Mrs. Clinton is strong enough to endure the knowledge that Mr. Gingrich is not fond of her. But the Saturday Night Live use of that coarse insult to the wife of the President I consider reprehensible, inexcusable, and symptomatic of a breakdown in simple courtesy that is degrading to all of us unless we protest it vigorously. Don’t misunderstand, please: this is not a partisan political point of view. I would be equally incensed to have Jay Leno use the same word in reference to the wife of Bob Dole. Nor am I upset because of any feel-ing that Mrs. Clinton should never be criticized. She has made mistakes, and will make more, like any other public figure hoping for change in the way we do things. Decent, thoughtful criticism is a boon to us and to her, and the satire of comic routines is one of the best ways I know to keep people in public life aware that when they do silly things, our laughter is good medicine against pomp and greed and meanness of spirit. But it is scurrilous to demean the person Hillary Clinton and the position she holds by that nasty epithet, whether on national TV or on a public street corner or in a congressional debate.
When the Apostle Paul was telling one of his associates how to instruct the people of God, he said: “Remind them….to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.” Scripture is sometimes ambigu-ous, but not in this case; it is absolutely unequivocal about our duty to be civil and respectful to one another, regardless of status — to those we live with at home, and work with in the office, and certainly, given the New Testament emphasis on respect for authority, to those who have been elected to govern us. Not that the latter cannot be criticized or rebuked, but that we exercise some modicum of civility.
Would it help to be reminded of the formal dictionary definition of that word? It means adherence “to the norms of polite social intercourse; not deficient in common courtesy.” I think we’ve slipped a little of late. What a strange new world it is when an ordained minister who runs a Christian college and preaches on a television network peddles gossip that the President of the United States has murdered people, and has so little regard for Scriptural teaching about courtesy and respect that he says things like this: “They used to call them perverts, then they called them homosexuals, then they called them gays….and now they call them Democrats!” I wonder what the Rev. Jerry Falwell says in a Bible class when he reads Paul’s comment that Christians are to “show every courtesy to everyone”? Ask a few teachers about courtesy in the classroom, especially among children who constantly watch their counterparts on TV and in movies sass their parents, talk back to teachers, and laugh at the law. Or simply reflect on the courtesy from clerks and salespeople which you used to take for granted. I know some store owners who would love it if more of their employees would take seriously the advice of the Apostle Paul to “render service with enthusiasm” (Eph. 6:5).
But the kid at Wendy’s who looks out the window while you order, and the cashier at Target who works studiously on a hangnail while you stand waiting to pay will probably grow out of it, and in any event their simple rudeness is not worth building a sermon around. But ugly verbal insults are, and the sad truth is that a whole industry has been built in the last few years in which people try to outdo one another in nastiness. I know which side I’m on in the perennial debate about whether films or TV or talk radio simply reflect a drop in courtesy — as they love to claim — or whether they help tocreate it, but they are obviously thriving on boorish behavior. Talk radio, in fact, was called by one newsmagazine last week, “Insult Radio,” and the general manager of a station in Chicago gave this fascinating reason why there are few liberals on talk radio. He said, “They [the liberals] are genetically engineered not to offend anyb ody. People who go on the air afraid of offending are not inherently entertaining.” It’s an interesting proposition: we are entertained by hearing people offend other people! We are not talking about good-natured fun, clever jokes about human pride and folly that make good medicine, but insult…and the coarser the language the better. A talk radio host in New York City says he really isn’t interested in news, but in enter-tainment because entertainment makes money, and describes his show quite frankly as “an entertainment device designed to revel in the agony of others.”
That, of course, caused me to remember the first time I heard a man named Rush Limbaugh, quite early in his career. He was advertising a little manufactured device that made a sound of water gurgling, as if someone might be trying desper-ately to catch a breath while drowning [I paused here, Robin, and made some comment about how I had considered imitating the sound…and then I did, gargling, and they had fun with it….as your loose-goose gang would]. Rush, it turns out, was marketing these toys under this title: “The last moments of Mary Jo Kopechne.” [Pause and wait for the gasp….you’ll get it!] I thought, How could a man do this, knowing that somewhere in his audience the dead girl’s mother and father and relatives and friends would hear that crude, insensitive sales pitch? When I heard the sales were soaring, I also thought, Somewhere there are lots of people who think that’s funny. If it is, God help us!
Once upon a time certain very religious Jewish peoiple would not willingly walk on even the smallest piece of paper because, they said, the name of God might be written on it. Superstition, of course, but apply it for a moment to people as a brilliant poet, philosopher and Christian named Samuel Taylor Coleridge did back in the 19th century. Trample on no one, however humble, he said, because “the name of God may be written on that soul….despise it not.” There is good psychological reason to treat people well: all of us tend to become what we are taken to be. I confess to being almost painfully dependent on the trust placed in me by others. Stand me up before a strange audience, looking at me dubiously, and I always wish at first I were some-where else, far away. I push ahead, because I have no choice, and with good luck I may see the faces soften, as if to say, “OK, he may be all right after all,” but what a difference between speaking to such a group and speaking to you, who give me the benefit of the doubt even before I open my mouth.
That phrase, by the way, is too important to pass by quickly. Giving people the benefit of the doubt is an essential part of courtesy and civility. I wrote an article once about a Harvard social psychologist, Dr. Robert Rosenthal, who told teachers in an experiment that certain children in a group were likely, according to fictitious pre-testing, to “spurt ahead.” Those kids did spurt ahead, despite the fact that in actual tests they had shown no greater ability than their peers. “The difference between the special children and the ordinary children, then, was only in the mind of the teacher,” Dr. Rosenthal said of his experiment. Children who were falsely labeled as potential bloomers tended to bloom with extraordinary frequency, without special tutoring or crash programs. Confidence in them was the cause of creation: they became what they were expected to become. I think of Emerson’s famous saying: “Trust (people) and they will be true to you; trust them greatly, and they will show themselves great.” Will there ever be an exception? Won’t somebody occasionally betray your trust? Of course someone will, because there are exceptions to any principle, but there has never been a great leader in all of human history who has not understood and acted on Emerson’s principle.
So what does it have to do with my topic? A great deal, in my opinion, because in a way courtesy and civility are expressions of trust. When you treat me with respect, you express some faith that I am worthy of it, and your faith in me becomes creative. Some of you have read what the faith of Jesus of Nazareth created in a rather unstable and impulsive Galilean fisherman. His birth name was Simon, but Jesus told him one day that he would be known as Petros, the rock, a prediction which might have seemed ludicrous at the time to Peter’s friends, but Jesus stuck tohis expectation and one day Simon really did become Petros, part of the solid granite on which the church was built.
Dr.Rosenthal said of his study that children of upper middle class families are, almost without exception, college material. The key, he explained, is expectation. Such parents assume that their children will go to college. The children grow up in an atmosphere where this expectation is ever present. The result is that they hardly ever give serious thought to any other alternative. All of us try, consciously or not, to live up to expectation. A man named George Bishop, in a book called Faith Healing, tells of going in skeptical mood to the front of a tent during a healing service. He relates with great surprise that he suddenly found himself not wanting to gum up the works. He hoped he could either get to his seat again unnoticed, or that he would so conduct himself as to live up to the expectation of the healer, despite his doubts.
The notion of the creativity of trust holds out a tremendous challenge to all of us who profess the Christian religion. We can, in effect, actually participate in the creation of persons. By trust, we help make people trustworthy. We provide the air in which people grow just as surely as I used to provide the airbubbles that made life possible in my tropical fish tank. It’s an awesome responsibility, but it’s a thrilling idea: each of us mimics the Creator by creating the small world in which we move. At our business office, in the home, in the classroom, on the playing field — everywhere — we exude an aura which directly and strongly affects those around us. We make it possible for them to be better than they are — or worse. How ironic it is that we sometimes make our dearest and closest ones into what they are, and then turn on them in savage rebuke for being what we created. We distrust them until slowly but surely, influenced by that distrust, they become worthy of it! “You see,” we say triumphantly, “you are exactly what I thought you were!” Of course! It had become difficult for them to be anything else. Apparently even Jesus himself responded to trust and was crippled by the lack of it. He was stymied once, in his home territory, by lack of confidence on the part of his hearers. “And he did not do many mighty works there,” the gospel says, “because of their unbelief.” It seems that even this magnetic personality found himself unable to perform at his best around people who had no faith in him.
Civility, I repeat, is a form of trust. Courtesy is one way of expressing faith in another person. I confess that one of the most disquieting thoughts I ever have is that my scepticism on some occasion may have helped create the very thing I feared, that my failure to be civil in some flawed moment may have helped to shape the landscape of rudeness.
“Life is not so short,” Emerson said, “but that there is always time for courtesy.” Oh how we need you now, dear old New England philosopher. As Emerson also pointed out once, we give even the pictures that hang on the walls of our homes the advantage of being put in the best light. We should be at least that courteous to fellow human beings, he writes, and put them, in our discourse, in the best possible light….give them, in other words, the benefit of the doubt. Listen one last time to the great Apostle’s good advice: We ourselves, he confesses, once spent our lives in malice and envy; others hated us and we hated them. But we have been rescued from that sort of life, so let us remind each other not speak evil of others but always to show a courteous and gentle attitude. Right at this moment in American public life, I can’t think of anything more important to say to you.