2010- Year of Civility, Perhaps

When nothing is sacred anymore the only thing we can hope for is that sometime very soon, we can re-discover our collective sense of self-control, integrity, fair-play and civic responsibility. Look around you: have you experienced a decline in behaviour, an increase in unfriendliness and rudeness, or a total lack of respect shown toward others? Or just try recalling some of those rude mobile telephone conversations you had to listen to while travelling in a train?

A colleague of mine was recently complaining about the loss of manners, courtesy and community spirit – especially among young people. She was very critical of the ways people behave at boarding any public transport and how they walk along the sidewalks. There was a general feeling from all of us in the group that the loss of basic manners and notions of civic responsibility is an alarming problem that cuts across age, gender, culture and ethnicity. The most frustrating thing is that all of us felt disempowered to be able to say anything to anyone about their behaviour, even when it is very offensive.

Has Britain become an uncivil society? A new book published recently argues that incivility has become common, whether in the behaviour of TV and radio presenters, revellers out on a Saturday night, or drunks on airplanes. This situation has reached such an extent that when we do meet people (especially young people) who are courteous, helpful and kind we are very surprised and will want to share that experience with as many people as possible. This is besides the fact that we are then cognisant of our own behaviour and what we have lost.

Civility Lost and Found (published by the Young Foundation with the support of AHRC) looks at the nature of civility in British society and what can be done to nurture such a society. The research points to a wide range of actions that could help to make Britain a more civil society, building on projects already in place: powerful institutions taking more responsibility for the impact of their actions, and those of their leaders; the internet offering civility checks for emails; firms and public services offering apologies when things go wrong, rather than oscillating between defensiveness and financial compensation; teenagers playing roles as civil guardians on the streets; schools teaching mindfulness; police force providing on the spot prizes as well as spot fines for young people etc.

Some of the thoughts from leading thinkers and politicians include the following: call for more character education in schools and volunteering to instill habits of civility; closer attention and care to families and time together; rethinking the relationship between political correctness and civility; cultivating the habit of being able to say sorry and to apologise; exploring more intentionally the role of religion and volunteering in promoting civility. [For more on the research on civility see: http://www.youngfoundation.org/files/images/Civility.pdf ]

Perhaps, in our clamouring over the notion that we are Christian nation or one founded on Christian ethos, we may do well to revisit some of the basic tenets of the faith that are related to how we practice our love of God and neighbour, so integral not only to the Christian religion, but to all religions. Perhaps, public policies may wish to take some of the leaves from the pages of sacred texts! And it may just be possible that civility – the “learned grammar of sociability” – may once again take deep roots in society for the common good of our relational lives and that of future generations.

© copyright jagessar January 2, 2010

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