Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Is civility really a thing of the past?

by Francis Hare

Fist of Fury

Almost true story: A fine Southern lady and her daughter are taking a cab through New York, when the young girl asks about several brazenly dressed women standing at a nearby street corner. “Well, sweetheart,” her mother explains, “those women are personal escorts. Single gentlemen hire ladies like that to keep them company.”

“Aw c’mon, toots,” the driver blurts, “Tell her the truth! They’re hookers. They get paid to have sex.”

After a painful silence, the daughter asks, “But Mama, if that’s true, don’t they have babies?”

“Well, yes, they do, darling. That’s where cabbies come from.”

What I love most about that adage is how, without abandoning her mannered gentility, Mama takes that cabbie to the woodshed like ‘Bama whuppin the Gators down in Gainesville this year. As we’d say in the South, “Bless his heart, he didn’t know what hit him.”

And bless our hearts, but civility is becoming so rare in public discourse, these days I can even get a little giddy reading a graciously stated opinion I disagree with. For example, In a September piece titled Are Scientists Becoming the New Priests?, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Deborah Saunders (one of my favorite columnists) wrote, “For the record, I believe in evolution. But I also have respect for those who see God’s handiwork in the process—and see little reason to try to marginalize those with different personal beliefs.”

Naturally, I would prefer to see Deborah singing in the choir on Sundays, but I love the fact that she can weigh-in on one of the most contentious issues of our time without offending either side.

And that’s one of the beauties of a civil society: People can disagree with one another without disrespecting each other. Which (for example) is why, despite generally leaning to the right, I vastly prefer NPR to Fox News. Particularly the Friday afternoon discussions between liberal E.J. Dionne and conservative David Brooks. Two masters of the poignant zinger, whose political views are as diametrically opposed as the Tea Party and the Occupiers, yet who (unlike those two caustic coalitions) manage always to limit the aim of their occasional barbs to one another’s positions—not one another.

And boy, do they ever disagree. But to hear them talk, I’m always left with the impression that these two guys are genuinely friends. So where did our public manners go? Personally, I’d lay most of the blame on the Baby Boom (of which, yes, I am a reluctant member); arguably the most self-congratulatory generation in human history, still endlessly celebrating—among other legacies—the righteous rallies of the Vietnam era.

Not that Vietnam wasn’t a terrible mistake. But imagine how much more effective the opposition might have been if they’d followed the peaceful-protest example of Martin Luther King—instead of staging an endless series of violent demonstrations that rarely amounted to little more than televised tantrums gone horribly wrong.

Imagine how the Watergate hearings would be remembered if they’d been led not by honorable elder statesmen like Sam Ervin and Howard Baker, but rather by the current crop on Capitol Hill. Particularly that new breed of politician, brilliantly characterized by my friend Hanson Watkins as “political suicide bombers.” They pretend to have our nation’s best interests at heart, but in truth they’re just professionally trained anger merchants—speaking across the proverbial aisle only through carefully-crafted, sarcasm-laden Tweets and talking points.

To bring this all back home, if it wasn’t for my wife, I’d probably still be a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal myself when it comes to manners. Not that my parents didn’t try (and try, and try) to teach them to me. They just never fully sold me on the practical benefits of good manners, as a child. So while Martha has taught our kids by words and example, my primary contribution has been a fairly effective sales job for those practical benefits—which goes something like this:

If you have good manners, grown-ups will like you more than other children. They’ll do things for you they won’t do for other children. They might even buy you things they won’t buy other children. And some day, you’ll start having good manners just because you enjoy it.

In practical terms, that’s the ultimate benefit of a civil society: It simply makes life more enjoyable for everybody, kids and adults. And if there’s one thing severely lacking in our culture these days, it’s a natural inclination to spread joy—no matter what the circumstances are. Now, if I could only remember that simple truth the next time I get behind the wheel.•

Francis Hare is the President of Hare Communications. You can connect with him at [email protected]

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