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The Decline of Civility and Why It Matters

What happens when a nation forgets its manners?

Q. What does that mean for America’s future?

A. If we cannot be civil, our quality of life deteriorates, society itself begins to fray and democracy is weakened. We get to the point where incivility escalates and crosses into violence. There are now some 1.8 million acts of violence in the workplace each year, the government reports—from one worker shoving another to actual fights and even killings. Many began because of a perceived slight, a small act of rudeness that spiraled out of control. We all have an incentive to foster civility because the higher the level of civility, the lower the level of violence in a society.

Q. The Republican as well as the Democratic Party called for Wilson to apologize. Was that a hopeful sign?

A. It was a very good sign, a correct response. A gathering of members of Congress to hear an address by the president should be marked by respect and decorum. Behavior should be impeccable to set an example to the nation and to our young people. When it is marred by something like we saw, we need to demand an apology. If this incident had been shrugged off, it would mean we were inured.

Q. Who can help change our uncivilized behavior?

A. This is a battle that should be embraced by Americans age 50 and older. When we are young we pursue beauty, success. As we grow older, our interests switch to ethics. Generally, as we age we care more about giving back. This would be a great project for older Americans; they could teach civility to their grandchildren and even visit schools to talk about why good manners matter.

Q. How do you foster civility?

A. In the past few years, hundreds of civility projects have sprung up across the country—in community colleges like Oakton in Chicago to medical centers like Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. Even government agencies like NASA have tried to foster civility through special projects. NASA, for example, has regular “civility cafes” where employees talk about behavior and hear speakers—all to increase their awareness of civility. And more school districts are including manners and civility in their lesson plans. These are all attempts to improve the quality of life by increasing the quality of human interactions. They are small but important. After all, how well we treat other people is the basis of every ethical system.

Barbara Basler is an executive editor at AARP Bulletin Today.

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