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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Civility

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 6, 2011


            Civility in public life (or the lack thereof) has long been an American concern. Way back when he was just 16 years old, the “Father of Our Country”, George Washington, transcribed in his notebook 110 different Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation. I am going to read all 110 of those rules to you now…

 

            Only kidding. I know that such would not be civil on my part toward you—or your ears—or your patience—or your backsides. So let me share only one of Washington’s rules-- # 13—and call it a day, as far as Washington’s rules of civility are concerned:

 

            “13th. Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice, ticks &c in the Sight of Others, if you See any filth or thick Spittle pit your foot Dexteriously upon it if it be upon the Cloths of your Companions, Put it off privately, and if it be upon your own Cloths return Thanks to him who puts it off.”

 

            I’m sure that’s a great help to us as we seek to raise the level of public discourse in our society and restore civility to our public transactions with one another.

 

            Of course, the language is arcane (the spelling and punctuation absolutely unfathomable). Washington’s 110 rules all sound kind of quaint when you read them, detailing as they do how we are to behave one toward another in all of our public doings. They harken back to different age, certainly.

 

            But as I have said before, I sometimes get a little impatient with those who want to go back to “the good old days”. The “old days” weren’t always so good, not for everyone, not for those on the lower level of society’s pecking order, certainly. I don’t want to go back to the “old days” of children “being seen but not heard”; or of women being considered the “property” of their husbands; or of black people having to sit in the back of the bus, being denied their rights, even being chained and held as slaves. That’s what it was like  if we go back to the real “old days” in our land. If truth be told, the good old days often really weren’t all that good—not for many people.

 

            As far as American politics goes, it hasn’t always been a veritable love-in either. Politics have always been dirty, in America, and in other countries, too. Supporters of John Adams back in 1800 whispered about his opponent, Thomas Jefferson, and how he had sired a child with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. For their part, Jefferson’s supporters labeled Adams a crypto-monarchist, a would-be dictator, who wanted more than anything to have himself crowned king.

 

            But by 1884, American politics had grown so refined that the Democrats called the Republican candidate: “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine/ Continental liar from the State of Maine!” – and asserted that the Democrats advocated “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion”—that is, that they were all drunks, closet Catholics, who wanted to resurrect the defeated Confederacy. For their part, Blaine’s supporters spread far and wide stories of how Cleveland had sired a son out of wedlock, and put forth as their edifying campaign slogan: “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”

 

            By comparison, the presidential campaign of 2004 seems like Plato and Aristotle discoursing on the Acropolis. Well, not quite… But things haven’t changed all that much, as far as dirt and politics are concerned.

 

            A certain amount of dirt is inevitable in the rough and tumble of politics in a democracy. We think of the British as being so refined and so much more polite than we are, but in the British House of Commons, the members of the opposition make disparaging comments aloud when the Prime Minister is speaking. In the Ukrainian parliament (or the Verkhovna Rada, as it is called in Ukrainian) opposition members toss eggs at each other, on good days; at other times, there are full-scale brawls, even riots in the aisles. Well, we haven’t descended that low—yet.

 

            But none of this is meant to deny that there has been a noticeable breakdown in the level of civility in our society, not just in our politics, but in our lives in general (and it could well be that our politics are just reflecting the general breakdown elsewhere).

 

            Open disagreement is one thing. Having Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina yell “You lie!” at the President during the State of the Union Address (as happened last year) is quite another. (So much for Wilson’s “Southern gentility”.) A free airing of different viewpoints and perspectives is one thing. Having someone outside the post office parading a poster of the President disguised as Hitler is quite another.

 

            As one observer has put it:

 

            “Disrespect has ballooned over the past few years into a mob mentality that spans way beyond the world of politics. Unfortunately, the nation has also watched:

 

  Town halls degenerate into yelling matches across the country…

  Mob rhetoric that has moved from the angry to the inflammatory…

  [The] re-emergence of white supremacist militias… [and]

 Blatant racism mixing into political issues.”

 

            Then there was the sad spectacle of last year’s September 12th rallies—rallies that were supposed to restore the spirit of September 12, 2001—the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, but did anything but. Remember that sense of national unity we seemed to have back then, in the wake of that devastating tragedy? The day after America was attacked, we weren’t obsessed with whether we were red states or blue states—we were all the United States. We were Americans, standing together to protect the values and principles and way of life we all held dear.

 

            The September 12th rallies last year were supposed to try to re-capture that spirit.

 

            Instead, we saw people parading around with Confederate flags—that symbol of slavery and treason and secession.

 

            There were pictures of the President—in clown-like white face; as Hitler (again); as Frankenstein; as the Devil; as a tribal witch doctor. One “proud American” even carried a sign that read: “The zoo has an African lion and the White House has a lyin’ African.”

 

            A certain amount of give and take—even dirt; even “Filth and thick spittle,” as Washington might out it, perhaps-- is inevitable in a democracy. If we are to live in a free land, that means putting up with things that we find offensive and aggravating. That is the cost of freedom.

 

            But such reprehensible displays like those I just mentioned are becoming more common, I’m afraid; and the fringe (especially on the Right, frankly) seems to be making its way into the mainstream. (I ask myself, why does one of the leading potential candidates for the Republican nomination incessantly utilize all this inflammatory rhetoric, insist upon using violent, weapons-laden imagery throughout her political pronouncements, if not to insight irrational distrust of those who oppose her? That’s not just disturbing; frankly, it’s frightening, and a bit dangerous. Civility is fine and dandy; but I think a bit of caution may also be called for, as well.)

 

            Why has our politics become all about unabated and untrammeled rage and anger? When did political discourse become nothing more than who could shout the loudest, and drown out opposing voices?

 

            My colleague, Harold Babcok, suggests several reasons for this development in American culture and society. Among his suggested reasons are:

 

            the advent of 24 hour news programming (like Fox News and MSNBC);

 

            the decay of objective journalism and its replacement by journalism as entertainment or journalism as propaganda;

 

            the inability to envision a third (or fourth or fifth) way between black and white alternatives (Are most issues really only either/or propositions?);

the promotion of an “us versus them” mentality;;

            laziness;

 

            failure to listen, especially to those with whom we disagree;

 

            the unwillingness to compromise;

 

            clinging to our own truth;

 

            defensiveness;

 

            arrogance;

 

            fear, especially of the other;

 

            the triumph of ideology over practicality and common sense…

 

            There’s a lot of wisdom is this list that Rev. Babcock has drawn up. The reasons he offers, I think, say a lot about what has gone wrong with the way that people often interact with one another nowadays

 

            We do seem to think of it more and more as an “us against them” struggle—and I blame those of us on the Left for this as much as those on the Right. (Well, almost as much.) I can’t stomach Fox News. You all know that already. But I really can’t listen to MSNBC either (even though I agree with pretty much all that they’re peddling). Harangue is harangue, and propaganda is propaganda—and it doesn’t matter if you’re being shouted at from the Left or the Right, after a while it all becomes pretty unintelligible. That’s not what our country needs right now; it’s not what our world needs. We’ve got to get back to basics, and we have to learn to share information with one another like grown-ups again.

 

            Better, I think, to spend my time reading a magazine like The Economist from London. I might not agree with everything I read there. They are so conservative, really; they are so gung-ho on free market capitalism. But I always know when I read The Economist that the arguments made will be well-reasoned and sensible, and I know I’ll come away from the experience having learned something. Is that something we can say about most of our American media today? I don’t think so.

            Maybe Dennis Kucinich or Bernie Sanders never yelled “You lie!” as George W. Bush when he was delivering one of his State of the Union addresses (and that is to the credit of both of those fine gentlemen and great Americans, because they must have tempted sometimes.) I never paraded in front of the Stoughton Post Office with a picture of George W. Bush dressed up like Hitler.

 

            But I think back at some of the things we on the Left said during those eight long years, and I am not proud. Those remarks about a village in Texas missing its idiot. Remarks about President Bush’s limited mental capacity. They might be funny things to say, within a little circle of people who agree among themselves already. But they don’t qualify as adult political statements. They don’t help to solve the problems our country, and the world, faces.

            I may still disagree with many of the policies the previous President put forward. (I’m not always in love with all of the policies of the present President, either.) I may still believe that many of his policies were ill-advised, unjust, bound to create even greater problems. I may also believe that, largely, I have been vindicated in my opinions. I’m also certainly not saying that there’s not a place for political humor, even of the most wide-ranging type. (Mine is a wide-ranging sense of humor, I think.) But if Americaa is going to grow up and get busy, then we’ve all got to do something to help build a political discourse that is more than sound bites. We have got to do something to start talking with one another again; to break down this “us versus them” stranglehold; to break out of our own mental lethargy and laziness, which makes us avoid differing perspectives and reach again and again for the comfort of pre-digested ideas which match up perfectly with those we already hold.

            None of these will be easy things to do within our present infantile culture.

 

            The great Christian writer G.K. Chesterton warns us “not to stretch the folly of youth to be the shame of age.” Yet, we live in a culture which seems to let us refuse to grow up. Childhood is supposed to be the “grace period” when we might be able to get away with wolfing down our food at the table, interrupting others on the telephone, or accepting a gift without saying thanks. But we’re supposed to be taught better, and we’re supposed to grow out of such uncivil, impolite behavior. But sometimes today, it’s hard to tell who the adults are, and who are the kids, and who’s raising whom. As one observer has put it: “Good manners have been characterized as the oil that lubricates our everyday interactions, making society bearable… Life is tough, but incivility makes it tougher.” And meaner. And less humane. And more isolating and ultimately, more depressing.

 

            “Manners are about treating others as if they matter,” wrote Ellen Goodman. It is our manners, our civility toward one another, which breaks down the “Idolatry of the Self” that modern technological society has created all around us. Individualism and self-gratification have become our over-arching values. All manner of media implore us to do what we want, to “have it our way”. As the Rev. Tess Baumberger has written:

 

            “Our face-to-face interactions wane as we largely shun real communities in favor of virtual reality. What’s worse, our consumer-driven society encourages us to consider things only in terms of how they will serve our needs or advance our own agenda. In contrast to people in times past, we tend to value institutions according to what they can do for us, rather than what we can do for them.”

 

            According to Lynne Truss, writing in her book (with the absolutely delicious title Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door): “The effect of all this limitless self-absorption is to make us isolated, [self-centered], grandiose, exhausted, inconsiderate, and anti-social.” (Sounds like the Boy Scout Law for a troop from hell!) Or, to bring it down to simpler terms: How many egotists does it take to screw in a light bulb? One, and all they have to do is stand there and hold it, and let the world revolve around them.

            But we do not cast our own light, any of us, not entirely. Life is relational. Life is what our relationships make it—in a family, in a church, in the greater society. We exist and perceive our identity in relation to others. Right relationships make our lives good. Unjust relationships make our life bad.

 

            As the very first of George Washington’s “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour” reminds us: “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that our Present.”

 

            “Good manners must be inspired by a good heart,” that great failed Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson adds. “There is no beautifier of complexion, or form, or behavior, like the wish to scatter joy, and not pain, around us.”

 

            To which, we can only add the words of the great American psychologist Henry James: “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.”

 

            In this present age, that might not be enough to get any of us elected President.

 

            But it will be enough for us to go through life glad for having been here. That may be more important, in the end.

 

 


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