I drove across Wyoming on Interstate 80 last weekend, through construction sites and packs of semis. I saw drivers move over to let merging traffic onto the road. I saw drivers fall back as the vehicle in the right hand lane signaled a lane change. I saw no accidents and few speeders. I-80 is a place where civility matters and people live as a result.
Incivility doesn’t always have fatal results, but it can produce a kind of death. Do you want to be heeded; do you want your ideas to have impact? I confess to responding better to people who are civil than to people who aren’t. The person who drops a verbal bomb and runs is someone wanting to score points, not solve a problem.
I work in a public library, providing services to people of all ages and conditions, with varying skills and opinions. People with complaints or concerns come to me. We want to provide good service, and people have to tell us about problems before we can fix them. And not anonymously.
But anonymous comments aren’t civil. Generally they are negative. They can be filled incorrectly spelled dirty words. They can be extremely short, like “This place sucks, a phrase which achieves little that’s productive. There’s no one to respond to, no one to ask for more information, no way to solve the problem, whatever it may be. Someone, years ago, thought that Curious George (a character from the children’s book of the same name) had been lynched in the children’s room. What kind of people were we to expose innocent children to such a sight, asked the anonymous writer. The display was incomplete; George was to hang from a vine promoting summer reading. The jungle leaves were added and the problem solved before the letter arrived. But there was no one to explain that to.
People can complain about specific books in anonymous ways too: There is the editor who corrects grammar or notes the change in the color of the character’s eyes from one page to another. And here’s a reader comment inked in our copy of “Ship of Fools”: “This book is to long. “ An elected official told me she ignored anonymous letters: “If they can’t put their names, why should I pay any attention?” But the human impulse is to want to respond and to be frustrated at not being able to. And attacks are upsetting.
Attacks can kill conversation. Mudslinging doesn’t shed light; it may provide a moment of one-upmanship, but the issue isn’t addressed. In a group that loves argument and knows each other well a bomb may start a good discussion. But not always. Think of a book group when not everyone admired or enjoyed the book. Readers can listen to the comments or others, hear what supporters have to say and end with a more complete understanding and appreciation for the work — without liking it any more. But listening increases understanding. Too abrupt a negative judgment on the book or the people who liked it short circuit that process.
Angry people are often not civil. They may write or come in person. They can be upset about a book, policyor bill. Sometimes they make an angry comment — “This is ridiculous” — and stalk out. Often they are not familiar faces, so we have no names again and can do nothing. It’s the people who make their case, listen, respond, and work towards a conclusion that are most successful in their complaints. They haven’t shut down conversation.
As I have been working on this piece, I’ve been struggling with my knowledge that I’m not civil all the time, that context matters a great deal. Who is my audience? Why am I speaking? What is my goal? At home or with friends I have called people names to vent anger or to bond with people of similar opinions. But that’s in private for emotional reasons. In public to solve problems, influence opinion and work towards a good conclusion, civility matters.
The Wyoming Humanities Council’s year-long Civility Matters! program is winding down. There’s still time for Civility Rumination Roulette — a game for anyone with Internet access. Think about how you and your family and friends can participate by visiting www.uwyo.edu/humanities.