Can we all get along?
There’s nothing to indicate Rodney King wanted to become a celebrity, any more than he wanted to be beaten by Los Angeles police in an incident that became a national news story in 1991.
When the four policemen involved were acquitted in a criminal trial (two would later be sentenced to prison for civil rights violations), it touched off a firestorm of outrage that led to riots and another moment when our country had to face the race issue.
But this isn’t a column about race, it’s a piece about the “Age of Angst” and the growing lack of civility in American society. Rodney King came to mind because April was the 20th anniversary of the chain of events that led to King’s simple-yet-profound statement made while trying to calm the vitriol that followed the verdict in the criminal trial.
Can we all get along?
Over the years, as our society’s become more polarized and its general mood is more cynical and jaundiced, King’s five-word plea has become fodder for sarcasm.
Still, if we’re going to restore a mood of civility in the public forum and in our private lives, Can we all get along? is a fundamental question. Learning to get along on a person-to-person level — showing civility to one another — is how civilized societies came to be.
The anniversary of King’s statement also recalled my discovery of a book called Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct. It was a paperback I found in the “Politics” section of a bookstore, written in 2002 by Dr. P.M. Forni, a literature professor at Johns Hopkins University.
Since then, Forni has become a crusader for returning civility to American society, and in 2009 he released a follow-up book called The Civility Solution.
Although I’m just as guilty of being sharp-tongued (or sharp-penned) as the next person, I share Forni’s belief that reestablishing civility is a great way for a great people to revive their eroding greatness.
Learning to get along is basic and it’s something we should embrace, not belittle.
See, getting along and being civil with one another at the individual and public forum levels, doesn’t mean you don’t have strong beliefs and convictions; doesn’t mean you shouldn’t defend a position; doesn’t mean you’re a meek, mindless sheep.
But what I’ve found increasingly distressful is that so many people in the public forum don’t want to just debate a subject or offer a conflicting opinion; they want to inflict a wound.
What bothers me about modern media pundits and politicians is that few can make a point without twisting the knife. The intent is not to discuss, it’s to crush a counter argument or individual or to replace reason with angst and hyperbole.
Still, what goes on in the public forum is nothing more than a reflection of what’s going on in private lives. When individuals can’t engage in civil discourse at a person-to-person level, without resorting to being snide, sarcastic, belittling and profane, why should we expect civility on TV and radio talk shows, in print or in the political arena?
And certainly, the anonymity of the Internet has opened whole new avenues for “dissing” one another, allowing people to become uncivil hit-and-run artists.
Somewhere along the way, a growing number of Americans seem to have given up on the notion of respecting other people’s opinions; speaking kindly to one another, even though we may disagree on the topic; and considering that our opinion or our interpretation of a situation might be, gulp, wrong.
If you placed modern American society on a psychiatrist’s couch, the growing trend toward disrespect and incivility would be diagnosed as a lack of self-confidence at best, neurotic insecurity at worst.
Or maybe we’re just “dumbing-up” so much as individuals and as a society that we’re losing the self-discipline and intellect it takes to “get along.”
Whichever it is, where is the road of incivility taking us? Where does it end? And how do we get off it?
Some suggestions, the next time we gather.
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