Friday, November 22, 2013

The Day President Kennedy Died

I was in second grade at St. John's Elementary Day School in Abilene Texas. 

I didn't see our teacher leave, but I did see her come back. Ms. Spain was crying. I'd never seen her, or, for that matter, any adult cry before. She was really weeping. I knew something was very wrong. 

She told us that the President had been shot. I didn't know what that--being shot--meant exactly. I didn't know what--and certainly not who--the President was. What seemed obvious was that getting shot was bad enough to make our teacher cry. As she sat and cried at her desk, the principal came on the loudspeaker. She said--though heaving sighs that sounded a lot like Ms. Spain's uncontrolled sobbing--essentially the same thing: the President had been shot. She added that school was being let out and that our parents would be here shortly to get us. 

For a second-grader, getting out of school in the middle of the day is a bewildering but exciting feeling. That feeling was already tempered by the discomfort of seeing Ms. Spain in tears, but it was on seeing my parents--in particular my mother Lynda, who was crying--that I started the long process of understanding what had happened that day. 

Bill and Lynda sure had a lot of explaining to do with a question-a-minute seven-year-old like me. With one eye on Walter Cronkite, they had to talk about Presidents, elections, then rifles, motorcades, the Secret Service, and most of all, the dark and, until then in my life, the invisible subject of of death.

Until that day, I did not know that anyone dies; after it I knew it would someday happen to everyone--my parents, my siblings and yes, of course, me. A defining moment? Yes indeed.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


When most people think of civility, they likely think of being polite, or being courteous, or having good manners. But does being civil mean just being nice?  I think it's more important than that.

Civility is compromise.

We know what most people think of civility.  That's why it's commonly defined as politeness or some variation thereof.  But what does civility mean in practice?  I think it’s pretty simple.  Civility means getting along with others.  In a word, compromise. That’s a simpler notion than the Golden Rule, and as a consequence, it’s open to a lot more interpretation and variation.

That's it?  Just getting along with others?  Well first of all, it implies that we live with others.  If we lived by ourselves, civility wouldn’t be necessary.  As solitary individuals, we can do what we want, when we want, without thought of how that might affect others.  But as we gather into social groups, civility becomes necessary.  

The most basic example of this is walking on the street in a crowded city.  When people walk down a crowded street, they almost never run into each other.  Oh there are the occasional bumps and collisions by distracted pedestrians (especially with cell phones and music players) but for the most part, people manage to walk along without crashing into each other and starting fights.  Why?  How does this happen?

It has to do with several orders of control: norms, rules and laws.

Norms are the most basic forms of behavior control.  They are so basic, in fact, that we hardly even notice them and rarely seek to alter them once they are imprinted, often at a very early age.  These are the things that we learn in our earliest days here on the planet.

For many of us, those early days (at home but especially at school) are when we first learned to be civil.  For many of us, school is where we learned our norms:  how to stand in line, to wait our turn, to listen while others talk--in sum, how to respect the basic boundaries that we encounter in everyday life living with others.  Knowing and accepting these norms allows us to get along in a social environment like a school or a classroom or a job, or just walking along the street in a city.  It’s a skill we have to learn early or we risk being shut out.  

The consequences of failure to learn the skill of being civil are obvious--violence, abuse and crime. Not all people who are uncivil are psychopaths, but the absence of civility in an individual can often be traced to mental disorders or abuse.  People can become uncivil because they never learned how to do it in the first place.

To be clear, being uncivil doesn’t mean being violent, abusive or criminality.  It may be something as basic as withdrawal from society.  Knowing that they don’t know the rules of engagement with others causes many people to simply turn inward, away from others both mentally as well as physically. And, since it isn’t black-and-white but a spectrum of human behavior, this type of withdrawal can take many forms and have many (often unintended) consequences.  

Take rudeness for example.  Many people are rude and think nothing of it, literally.  These are the people who cut in line, speak out of turn and hurt others with senseless or even deliberately injurious actions.  They’ll say they didn’t ‘mean to’ but it’s ‘just the way’ they ‘are’.  And so they are, to the detriment of all around them.  They never learned the norms.

For these people, we have rules and laws.  

First, rules. Now, as everyone knows, rules were made to be broken.  In fact, that’s why they are there, because someone--lots of folks, actually--simply cannot abide by norms, and won’t moderate their behavior even when they know they are out of sync with others.  They think of themselves as eccentrics at best and of course, criminals at worst, but no matter what the label, they cannot be bothered with the norms and are therefore restrained (hopefully) by rules.

Rules, like norms, are unwritten.  I’m not referring to the rules of say, baseball, because those are more properly discussed as laws.  I am referring to the rules of human engagement, rules that we encounter in many, if not all, structured social environments like schools, workplaces, and of course, prisons.

At school, for example, a basic rule is to stand in line and wait your turn.  The rule says that if you cut in line and don’t wait your turn, you have to go to the back of the line.  The teachers are there to enforce this rule, but once everyone knows it, the other members of the group participate in the enforcement of it.  Cut in line and even if the teacher doesn’t see it, someone will holler about it in a hurry.

Norms govern our actions far more than rules, and rules govern our actions far more than laws, but when norms are ignored, and rules don’t work, laws are created and enforced to keep the uncivil in line--figuratively as well as literally.  People who cannot learn how to stand in line and wait their turn often end up in a place not unlike preschool in every way except for the absence of actual freedom at two o’clock.  In prison, people stand in line whether they want to or not.

Conforming to norms and rules is not required to be civil, but to the degree that norms and rules are ignored, the level of civility is reduced, and the likelihood of corrective action is increased. Maintaining civility is the function of government.  It provides a means--law--to enforce civil behavior on those who do not conform to norms or obey rules.

The consequences of being uncivil could be painful, so why be obstinate?  A simple bit of compromise is all that's need to avoid a collision. Yet people are obstinate and uncivil all the time in places where there isn’t time or space enough for norms to be completely effective.  Like traffic. Hence laws.

This isn’t to say that traffic isn’t governed by norms, just that norms are ineffective when it comes to protecting pedestrians from automobiles, and drivers from other drivers.  In a car, the norms we use to avoid collisions and problems as pedestrians are masked by the steel and glass curtain that surrounds us and insulates us from the tiny clues and signals we use on the street to be civil.

We exhibit many of the same modes of civility in our cars as we do on our feet, but the consequences of speed and mass are often not up to the task of mistakes.  Failure to compromise with other pedestrians on the street might annoy us (and in some cases start a fight) but for the most part we can brush it off because the consequences are frequently little more than surprise or modest embarrassment at the most.  But a mistake on the street in a car, even traveling at a low rate of speed, can have deadly consequences, as we all know.  Failure to compromise in a car can result in death.

But, as important as civility is to walking or driving, it is in the making of laws that civility plays the most important role in society.  Lately we've seen a sharp drop in civility amongst our lawmakers, who refuse to compromise with their ideological opponents, or worse, with their own colleagues of the same party. Sadly, this is by design and even sadder, the effect is deleterious (to say the least) on our society. Congressional obstructionists who outwardly maintain that they are simply standing up for their beliefs are in fact abandoning the norms rules and yes, even laws concerning civility.  Compromise is considered to be a weakness to be avoided at all costs, even if that cost is less what we pay without it.

In the name of a 'principle', these people have forgotten the basic reason for being civil: compromise moves us all forward. The result of failure to compromise is gridlock, and nothing gets done.  Without compromise, laws are not passed.  Regulation is ignored. Appointments are left unfilled. Work is left undone or done poorly.  In this situation, we all suffer. Think not?  What actually happens when the government is underfunded or deliberately hobbled by lack of leadership?  Where do you think 'red tape' comes from?

Compromise--particularly in government--is what enables our society to thrive and grow.  While walking down the street, or driving a car require civility in order to avoid unpleasant and often painful accidents, the consequences of uncivil behavior on the street are not as far-reaching as the breakdown of civility in the governing process can and will be.  When lawmakers refuse to compromise, we all suffer.

On any given day, we have to go along to get along. We must be civil--compromise--to get along with others who share the same norms, rules and laws. To get some of what we want we must give others some of what they want.  Civility is the oil in the engine of society. Without it, the engine seizes up and nothing can happen.