The other day, I heard General Colin Powell speak. As part of his address to more than a thousand people who attended the 100th anniversary of The Cleveland Foundation, he decried political incivility. He said that if he could take the cooperation visible in the audience and the greater good exhibited by the first community foundation in the country, distill the formula, and pour it over the heads of Washington politicians, he would relish doing so. Hardly a formula for fixing incivility, but it sounded nice.
A few days later, I thought I proposed reasonable solutions to some difficult issues involving other people. But instead of thoughtful, reasoned responses, I got a pile-on of insults from two obnoxious people, with others taking license to pile-on as well. Doing the only thing that civil people do, I caved. Why hold to my principles when I don't want to encounter the noise?
Ultimately, several thoughtful people came to my defense. "What they did to you, Stuart, was uncalled for. I want you to know that I stand by you," one leader proclaimed. It was too late; the damage had been done. I had already given up the battle in the interest of civility.
I reflected on this juxtaposition between General Powell's incivility solution and my own moral caving and I asked myself the question, "Why do we put up with obnoxious people?"
The answer is that we don't. Most of us do exactly what I did -- we distance ourselves, put up fences, and ultimately give in. We're disgusted by loud, in-your-face people, and we want no part of them. But, in the process, the obnoxious behavior becomes tolerated -- and somewhat normal. The net result is that, in the interest of our personal civility or comfort levels, our community's or country's overall civility gets trashed.
Wikihow's solution to dealing with obnoxious people is five-fold: (1) Keep yourself calm. I did that. (2) Consider the reason. I chalked it up to an oversized ego. (3) Be honest with them. I was -- and in my own way of punishing them, I just walked away. (4) Set boundaries. I resolved not to have anything more to do with them; and (5) Ask for advice. I did and was advised to just cave -- it wasn't worth the ruckus or high drama.
In following this advice, I may have felt good -- maybe even morally superior -- but my responses didn't do anything for civility. I just allowed the next victim to be hosed.
Last month, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had a similar response to the vitriol levied at Rutgers University. She withdrew as the commencement speaker because a hand full of noisy, obnoxious professors and students objected to her handling of the Iraq War and petitioned that she be disinvited. She bowed out because she didn't want to perpetuate the distraction. But, it remained a distraction. At the end of the day, the entire university community lost out, not just the few obnoxious ones. Incivility disrupted education.
I have come to realize that both Secretary Rice and I were doing exactly what others in our country -- even her predecessor General Powell -- were doing. We were settling by ducking, when more conversation -- maybe even heated conversation -- was needed. The only way to get to civility is to continue talking to each other, not by walking away.
A great example of this comes from Billings, Montana. During the holiday season of 1993, Billings and other communities in five Western states were declared "a white homeland" by the Aryan Nation and other white supremacist groups. As part of its overall intimidation tactics, activists from the Nation and thugs who tagged along started smashing windows in Jewish homes that displayed Hanukkah menorahs. The Billings Jewish population remained stoic and silent. The Billings Christian population stood by in dismay, disbelief and powerlessness.
It took Jew-by-choice Tammie Schnitzer, whose son's head was narrowly missed by a cinder block hurled through his bedroom window, to rouse the community by combining efforts with the local daily newspaper. She appealed to the Christian majority by telling them in a television broadcast that she was one of them, that she understood their community's values and that, based on those values, neither the Nation's behavior nor the community's standing by could be tolerated. The next day, the newspaper printed paper menorahs for all citizens to display in their front windows, and a majority of Billings' Christian population did so, standing with their Jewish neighbors. Seeing that reasonable people were taking over the public discourse, the Aryan Nation left.
I had the opportunity to give Ms. Schnitzer Project Love's Rescuer of Humanity Award in 1996, and I asked her why the citizens of Billings initially stood by. She profoundly told me that, "One of life's greatest challenges is getting good people to do good things."
That's our challenge, as well. Fortunately, we're not confronted with the Aryan Nation in every corner of our country, but we are dealing with incivility that is fueled by cantankerous people. These people are defining the conversation because the rest of us -- that so-called silent majority -- remain silent and, comfortably, do nothing.
Whether the incivility is caused by raucous people or triggered by polarized talk show hosts, politicians or bloggers -- the reasons don't matter anymore. We can no longer ignore incivility's overall impact on society. Piling on in one way, shape or form -- either in Washington, at Rutgers, on television, or in our own backyards -- is becoming usual.
So it's up to all of us to have the courage to stand for something and speak out. We can say to our neighbors,"This is not us; these are not our values; this is not how we treat people." Or we can retreat into our comfort zones, living our lives on the sidelines, while the obnoxious people claim center court.
Go to http://www.purpleamerica.us/#!civility-and-respect-poster/cypm to download your Civility and Respect poster: "I stand for civility and respect. It's simple. Treat others the way you would want to be treated." Take a stand!
Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Project Love Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialog around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us