Admittedly not concentrating on the road, my wife swerved back in forth in her lane.
The man accelerated his car, passed her, and flipped her off as he went by.
At the next stoplight, my wife pulled up next to him and rolled down her window.
“Sorry,” she said, “but my son was spilling juice all over the back seat, and I was trying to grab his sippy cup.”
In that moment, my wife was no longer an unattentive driver.
She was a mom struggling to get control of a messy situation.
And when he looked at her in that context, as a mom struggling to get through her day, he softened his heart.
“No problem,” he smiled, “We’ve all been there.”
Why have we lost our civility?
What causes us to look at a person and feel contempt for him?
What I mean by anonymity is we don't know the person toward whom we direct our contempt.
We see them in our physical world, but only as an abstraction.
They are “nameless.”
When we can’t identify them as people, we tend to treat them as less than people.
We open ourselves up to treating them uncivilly.
What is civility?
The root word for civility is the Latin cīvīlis which means:
- Of or pertaining to citizens; civic, civil.
- Of or pertaining to public or political life; public, political.
- (figuratively) Courteous, polite, civil, affable, urbane.
- (substantive) courtesy, civility
The root gives us the words civility and civilization.
Civilization is living together in large groups under defined social norms.
Civility is practicing these social norms in order to live together peacefully.
As cities have grown and more people have moved into communities, anonymity becomes more prevalent, and with anonymity, comes incivility.
The civilization we live in causes our incivility.
Think of places you see uncivil people every day:
- The highway
- A line
- The airport
- Youth sporting events
- The mall parking lot
- The sidewalk
In each of these places, we rarely know the people occupying the physical space around us.
They are nameless.
We don’t know what happened in their lives this morning.
We don’t see them as individuals.
We don’t see them as the same as us.
And that makes it easy to be uncivil to each other.
Technology has increased our anonymity and made us less civil
As our digital civilization has grown, so has our anonymity.
From the safety of a keyboard, we insult each other out without having to face those with whom we disagree.
Even in professional settings, it is easier to allow messages between co-workers to take on a nasty, biting tone if you have never met the person on the receiving end of your email.
The media doesn’t help.
In pursuit of a 24-hour news cycle, cable news channels bring on guest after guest to attack one side or the other.
In most cases, the object of the attack is not even in the same room as the attacker.
Everyone can have a website, blog, or just post in a forum. In most cases, you don’t have to use your real name.
You and the people you are deriding can remain anonymous.
How Do We Eliminate Anonymity?
We’ve all heard the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you want to be treated.”
According to Wikipedia, “ The concept occurs in some form in nearly every religion and ethical tradition.”
In the Christian tradition, it occurs as “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
What does this have to do with anonymity?
In order to love your neighbor, you have to know your neighbor.
Your neighbor has a name and a face. She has struggles just like you.
She is worthy of the same respect as you.
Thinking in these terms eliminates anonymity.
Who are your neighbors?
As our civilization expands, your neighbors are all around you — physically and digitally.
As we come into contact with more people, there are more opportunities for us to be uncivil to each other.
What if, when someone was irritating us, we asked ourselves, “I wonder what his name is?”
What if, when you saw someone with whom you disagreed with online, you pictured her face, as she sat at her keyboard, and thought, “Why does she believe that?”
What if, when someone is driving erratically, we thought, “I wonder what’s going on in her life right now?”
What if you stopped and thought of her as your neighbor?
The guy in the car behind my wife didn’t think through all these questions.
But my wife, seeing the middle finger fly in her direction, refused to let anonymity remove civility from her day.
In that moment, she could have simply attributed his behavior to rudeness.
She could have seen him as a jerk, an anonymous asshole.
Instead, she decided to let him know who she was.
She removed the anonymity between them and showed her neighbor in the next lane her struggles as a human being.
When he saw her as a mom just getting through her day, he connected with her.
He regained his civility.