As many of my loyal readers know (okay, as all three of my loyal readers know) I find the approach to encouraging "civility" described in P.M. Forni's book, "Choosing Civility" a bit simplistic, and yes, a bit irksome. But when I had the opportunity back in March to talk with Valerie Gross, the Executive Director of the Howard County Library about the much-touted "Choose Civility" campaign spearheaded by the library, she pointed out that the Forni's book isn't the only book highlighted by the campaign. There are lists of books on the library's website that engage in issues around civility, and the library would soon sponsor an event focused on another book, "Seasons of Life" by Jeffrey Marx which profiles the life and work of Joe Ehrman. Ehrman is a former defensive lineman for the Colts who now devotes his life to his organization "Building Men for Others".
That event took place this past Wednesday morning, and to my delight and surprise it took the whole conversation about civility way past manners, way past issues of personal space, way past rules and went right to the heart of the matter: if we want to improve civility, we need to develop a community that "affirms the value and worth of each human being".
Ehrman's talk was preceded by a seemingly endless series of introductions and speeches from all sorts of Howard County elected officials, all of whom affirmed that civility was already a big value for our county and one that they embraced and addressed in every aspect of their work. Once again I had this feeling of that the whole campaign was about everything and therefore not really about anything. But from the moment that Joe Ehrman stood up to speak, I knew he was going to cut the crap. His opening story--really a joke to remind people to turn off their cell phones--gave him the opportunity to say that racism is the "original sin" of the United States, and that our country was founded on the genocide of one people and the enslavement of another. That got my attention--and made it clear that his talk was not going to have the self-congratulatory feel of all of the preceding speakers.
A few other things Ehrman did which I deeply appreciated:
1. He based civil behavior in self-reflection. Within the first five minutes of his talk, he said that civil behavior is based in empathy, and that empathy requires self-reflection. He called this "mindsight", the ability to take a look at what is going on inside your own mind, and recognizing that our experience of the world is highly conditioned by messages that we have received from our culture and our families of origin. Some of those messages serve us well, and some of them don't. By growing our understanding of the basis for our own behavior, we grow our capacity to understand other people's behavior. And we become more able to empathize with other people, which increases our ability to treat others with dignity and respect--the basis of a civil community. Ehrman's approach is the opposite of a rules-based approach (the one taken by Forni) and while he didn't dwell on this point, I could see it was the basis of everything else he said.
2. He constantly said what he meant by "civility". Every time he said the word, he followed it by the phrase "affirming the value and worth of each human being". Finally, the word actually means something! Finally, it doesn't imply something about cultural hegemony that I'm not sure I really want to affirm. Now all we need to do is issue the next set of bumper magnets, formatted exactly like the ones that say, "Choose Civility in Howard County". The next set should say, "Affirm the Value of Each Human Being in Howard County." Now that's something I'd put on my car. Heck, I'd even contribute to the cost of generating magnets like that. Anyone want to join me?
3. He took responsibility for the ways in which he has been part of the problem. The focus of Joe's speech, and of his message, was that at the root of the most serious social problems that confront our country today is deep confusion about what it means to be a man. Masculinity has become a matter of "athletic ability, sexual conquest and economic success" which explains why professional athletes are the most important role models and heros to boys in our country today. Ehrman didn't just describe himself as an innocent victim of this misconception. He was clear that while he didn't create these false ideas, he has been driven by them as a young man and had perpetrated them, even in his semi-parental relationship with his younger brother. When that brother became sick with incurable cancer at 18, Joe realized that everything he taught his brother was useless in the face of the challenges he now confronted. Admitting that required a level of humility and grace that took my breath away. What if every other speaker had done the same thing--reflected honestly on how they were part of a system that supports false values, that degrades the value of other human beings?
After hearing Ehrman speak for almost an hour, I was ready to have a real "cut the crap" conversation with some of the other people there about our county. If I had been running the event, I would have cancelled the break-out sessions about "civility in the workplace" and so on and asked everybody to form a group of three to talk together about the ways in which we each are part of the problem. I may not be encouraging a false understanding of what it means to be a man, but am I supporting a misconception of what it means to be a woman? To be a Christian? To be an American? (Possible topics for future blog posts!) Then, I'd invite the groups to brainstorm together about what we each might do to build a community which "affirms the value and worth of each human being." Then I would have invite anyone who felt so moved to come to the microphone up front and to make a public commitment to some change in their lives that will help them to live with more empathy and responsibility.
But that's a lot more dangerous than putting a magnet on your car. That might actually change the world.