Where Has the Civility Gone?

Peasants Fighting, Brouwer, Adriaen, 1631-35 Oil on wood, Alte Pinakothek, Munich Peasants Fighting, Brouwer, Adriaen, 1631-35 Oil on wood, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Re-instating the Golden Rule

This is a bit different from my usual posts, but I simply must get this off my chest. Rarely does a week go by that I am not confronted with another breathtaking lapse of common civility. And I am not talking about merely texting at the dinner table or minor failures in basic social etiquette. I am talking about full-blown, in-your-face, confrontations initiated by otherwise mature, rational adults. Consider the following recent headlines (from which, I might add, there are a multitude to choose):

  • Passenger loses it over ‘Merry Christmas’ greeting, gets thrown off plane, report says
  • Driver flashed gun during road rage incident near UM Hospital
  • JetBlue flier ‘unruly’ because seatmate paid less
  • Car dealership workers humiliate pizza delivery driver
  • Missouri Mom Indicted In MySpace Cyber-Bullying

The list goes on and on. And these are only the ones that made the news. How many times have you witnessed an irate customer berating a sales clerk; an unhappy diner venting their frustrations on a poor waiter; or an airline passenger teeing-off on a flustered gate attendant? Don’t even get me started on the outrageous and ill-informed comments posted on news stories or Facebook. What has happened to us as a society?

Since 2010, the PR firms of Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, in partnership with KRC Research, have compiled an annual survey entitled Civility in America. If its findings are to be believed, I am not the only one who is sensing an escalating downward spiral in our dealings with one another. According to the survey:

  • 95% believe we have a civility problem in America
  • 81% think uncivil behavior is leading to an increase in violence
  • 71% believe civility is worse compared to a few years ago
  • 70% think that incivility has risen to crisis levels

But if we can all agree on the problem, what are we prepared to do about it?


Before we can formulate effective solutions, it is important to identify some of the major factors influencing our collective behavior. To that end, I will offer five probable contributors (certainly not an exhaustive list and in no particular order) to the decline of civility in America. I would imagine that readers outside the US will identify with most, if not all, of these factors from their own experiences.

  1. Societal Stress – Modern life, though increasingly convenient, moves at a faster pace than in generations past. It seems that it is becoming more difficult to achieve a reasonable work / life balance in an age where technology keeps us connected around the clock. Being unable or unwilling to simply “unplug” eventually leads to higher stress levels for most individuals.
  1. Internet Culture – Much has been written on this topic by more learned minds than mine, so I will try not to belabor the point. I will only make two quick observations.

Anonymity – The perceived anonymity offered by the internet is a double-edged sword that creates both opportunities and challenges. One of those challenges is in the matter of online civility. Until we begin to treat the medium as an extension of our more personal human interactions, there will always be an implied immunity from the responsibilities of basic civil intercourse.

Opinion Overload – The internet, as empowering as it is, has made the sharing of our opinions a matter of a few keystrokes. The world-wide broadcasting of a thought or opinion is now much simpler than its actual formation. The instant gratification of adding our voices to the debate—any debate, regardless of our qualifications to do so—gives us the mistaken impression that our opinions matter on every conceivable subject. (That’s just my opinion, of course.)

  1. Political Divisiveness – Although this is really not unique to our generation (you should read some of the political writings of our founding fathers if you don’t believe me), there seems to be a tendency in modern American politics to force people to adhere to a purist ideology at the extremes of both parties. This has served to push people away from the center, where compromise is possible. As a result, the body politic has become extremely polarized, with both sides spewing venom at the other. It has been my observation that much of the incivility found on the internet can be ascribed to this factor.
  1. Obsessive Victimhood – Why does it seem that everyone wants to be a victim? In our obsession with political correctness, it now appears that everyone is looking for any reason to be offended. And once the offender has been identified, they must be confronted publicly and loudly. This tendency makes half of us victims and half of us victimizers, fostering a constant state of division.
  1. Reality TV Mentality – This generation has been raised on a steady diet of reality television—starting with Phil Donahue and Jerry Springer in my day, and culminating in Jersey Shore, Survivor, and Real Housewives today. Why is it that we must celebrate and reward the most outlandish and socially unacceptable behavior? We watch spellbound as people annoy one another incessantly and plot together to force a confrontation that we hope will end in harsh words and tears. That has to rub off on us in some way.

The net effect of these factors on our collective manners is that we are becoming desensitized to bad behavior. We tolerate, and in some cases even celebrate, incivility in ourselves and others. We can do better.


I’ve thought about this a lot. And although I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, I’ve compiled the following list of five action items that I think will help us improve our own civility.

  1. Unplug From Time to Time – Everybody needs a little down time. When we are tired and stressed we don’t tend to play well with the other children. Turn off the social media at a certain time in the evening and don’t pick it up again until after your morning cup of coffee.
  1. Give People the Benefit of the Doubt until You Get the Full Story – How many times have we made an assumption about a situation and later found that we were missing some critical information that would have changed our reaction had we known it at the time? Let’s take the time to get the facts before engaging in a confrontation. Let’s think before we talk or type. And, yes, it probably means that we will feel that we have been bested or taken advantage of every once in a while. So what? It sure beats chronic cynicism and anger.
  1. Let Someone Else be Right for a Change – We would all be better off if we allowed ourselves to entertain the idea that we may not be right on every occasion. We aren’t experts on everything. Chances are there is someone out there who knows more than you about any particular subject that comes up. If you are uninformed or don’t have a dog in the fight, listen and learn. But keep your opinions to yourself. I am reminded of the wise words of Abraham Lincoln who said, “[It is] better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
  1. Stop Rewarding Bad Behavior – We get the programming and content we deserve. If we don’t watch it, eventually they’ll stop making it.
  1. Practice the Golden Rule – This is probably the best advice of all. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Our interactions would be a lot more civil and our lives a lot more tranquil if we followed this simple rule.

I pledge to you that I will make an honest effort to consistently apply these simple concepts in my own life and in my interactions with others. We may not change the world, but we can at least change ourselves. Now who’s with me?


9 thoughts on “Where Has the Civility Gone?

  1. We Christians would do well to remember what Paul wrote to Titus in chapter 3 — “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. … But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him,” (Tt 3:1–2, 9 ESV). There are many other such instructions in our Bibles. Maybe we should read and consider them more closely.

  2. Great article Jim, it would be nice if people would think of the consequences before they act upon certain matters. Seems society today has thrown all morals out the window and only a few have embellished those principles. Our country seems to be taking a downward spiral on all common core values and injecting it with more hatred and cynicism amongst ourselves and dividing our nation against one another! You made a lot of great points and if people would read this article and understand what you are really saying then things could possibly change! But until then all we can do Is hope and pray that we can get this country and others headed back in the right direction! Because if we don’t then no place will be safe from the havoc that has already began to brew! I live my life by a few of these concepts and I will do all I can to instill the others as well,We gotta start somewhere. Thanks my friend,
    Tim Taylor

    • Thanks for the comment, Tim. It is wonderful to hear from you. It has been such a long time since I have been back to Kentucky for a visit. It’s great to re-connect with old friends. I also appreciate you sharing the post on Facebook. Who knows, if enough of us commit to living more civilly we may not change the world. But we just might impact our little corner of it. Take care and God bless.

  3. Here, here! My teenager tells me that internet “trolling” is a thing now; some people are deliberately obnoxious just to watch the comments boil over once they’ve inserted their ugly little comment.

    That said, society has actually improved in a lot of ways. When I was a kid, “bullying” at school was considered everyone’s private business unless it was serious enough to involve doctors or police. These days we actually teach children how to behave, in addition to math, reading, and whatever else will be on the test. Kids are considered the school’s business (in Seattle, anyway) till the moment they reach home, so if a child is afraid to walk home because someone is waiting to jump them and hurt them, the school will intercede.

    My favorite part of your post (even though, ironically, I am online now as I type this) is your advice to unplug now and then. With the decline of the 40 hour work week, a lot of crabby people just need a nap. Everyone ought to have a time of day (other than bedtime) when they can turn off all the devices and lay down for a nap…or of course, to read a good book!

    • Ironically, I think we, as a society, now do a much better job of protecting our children physically. But we often fail to provide them with adequate role models to nurture their psychological, emotional, and spiritual development. I once read an interesting quote. It said, (and I am paraphrasing somewhat) “What we model in moderation, our children will practice in excess.” That has always stuck with me.

  4. The world has become so much smaller since the internet and I fear the problem you identify is pretty widespread internationally.

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