Susan G. Bednar, LCSW

Incivility and Responsibility

I participated in an online discussion recently on the subject of incivility, or at least that is the subject the author intended to be discussed.  She made the point that we seem to be losing the ability to engage with each other in a civilized manner, and that each of us has personal responsibility for speaking up when we witness blatantly disrespectful or aggressive behavior.  While the original post may have been prompted by the senseless violence in the news lately, the focus was less about violence than it was about basic incivility between people.  Sadly, the discussion quickly turned to the subject of gun control, with I might add, some rather blatant illustration of incivility between participants.  It seems we have become so polarized that discussion of any difficult topic degenerates into conflict, with seemingly little or no recognition of the incredible hostility and disrespect displayed by participants in the discussion.

Maybe I’m showing my age once again, but my generation was raised (with some exceptions, of course) to use simple courtesy in our transactions with others, and to discuss differences of opinion without resorting to hateful exchanges and intimidation to get our point across.  I am not trying to romanticize the past, and I am actually all for lively discussion and debate, but I do wonder when and how it became acceptable to disrespect and intimidate those with whom we disagree.  Something is qualitatively different, and different in a very malevolent way.  When I was growing up this kind of behavior would have landed a child in the principal’s office and been followed up by a conference with parents and perhaps a detention and/or a referral for mental health services.  Now we are heaping praise and adulation upon adults who behave this way!

As a retired therapist and conflict resolution professional, I actually have seen this kind of behavior repeatedly when working with my clients.  It is not new or shocking to me.  However I worked with some very disturbed individuals and couples, and mediated bitter conflicts that seemed intractable to the participants.  These were not everyday ordinary discussions between healthy, well-balanced individuals.  In each case, my job was to help them achieve some sort of balance, and in most cases they wanted to achieve that balance.  What I find unsettling about our current public discourse is not that some individuals are disrespectful and aggressive.  That happens and has probably always happened.  What I do find unsettling is that it seems to have become the new norm.  Extreme rudeness, disrespect, and hostility are no longer viewed as an indication of a troubled individual or relationship, but are rather presented as normal and maybe even desirable.  Have we really sunk so low as to glorify and pursue a permanent state of emotional disturbance?

It’s not that this madness has never occurred before.  Our nation did, after all, engage in slavery, fight a civil war, nearly annihilate Native American culture, and put Japanese Americans in internment camps.  We actually dropped an atomic bomb on real people.  We have a long history of racism and sexism that is unbecoming a civilized nation.  So no, I am not so naive as to think that we have never been so uncivilized.  We clearly have.  Yet as an American who loves my country and wasn’t born yesterday, I know we are capable of something better than this.  Read our history, or read some of our great thinkers and leaders of generations past, and you will realize how far off the tracks we have been running.  The status quo is not acceptable to me, and it shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone who wants our nation to remain free and prosperous.

Somehow we have lost both our manners and our moral compass.  How many of us were really taught that it was acceptable to lie, cheat, and exploit others?  How many of us were taught to get our way in life by bullying others?  How many of us were taught to pepper our everyday interactions with name-calling, or to dissipate tension by toting a loaded weapon around?  Yes, some of us may have learned those things if we were economically disadvantaged, emotionally disturbed, lived on the street or in a dangerous neighborhood, or grew up in an abusive or severely neglectful family.  But this is not by any stretch of the imagination healthy or normal.  It is what some people had to do to survive bad situations in their childhood.  It is not what anyone aspired to.  Most people, if given a chance, would want something better than that.

Actually moving towards something better than that is a matter of personal responsibility.  Yes, personal responsibility.  As I have explained to clients on so many occasions, none of us is omnipotent.  We don’t control others.  We can only control ourselves.  If you were mistreated as a child, or grew up in a difficult environment, that is regrettable.  If you were treated unfairly as an adult, that is also regrettable.  In some cases, it is more than regrettable, it is criminal.   As an adult, we are all capable of refusing to perpetuate the problems of our past.  We may not be able to single-handedly end all abuse and violence, but we can take responsibility for our own behavior, and we can make sure that we don’t pass our own misfortune on to the next generation.  That is our responsibility as adults and as Americans.

Beyond that, I believe we also have social responsibility.  That is, we have a responsibility as adults and as Americans to work towards the betterment of our fellow Americans, and towards a more perfect union between us.  We have a responsibility to elect leaders who exemplify the best that we have to offer, and to shun those who promote incivility, hatred, and violence.  That’s because, regardless of our political beliefs, we have a responsibility as citizens to work together towards a better future, not to beat each other into oblivion because we don’t agree on every policy issue.

A failure to accept our personal and social responsibilities as adults is not healthy for us as individuals, and it isn’t healthy for us as a nation.  We can do better than that.


Important Note:  This blog is intended for informational and discussion purposes only, and does not substitute for professional care.  Your circumstances may differ from those discussed, and your needs may be different.  If you are experiencing distress you feel unable to resolve on your own, please seek assistance from a qualified professional of your choice.

2 thoughts on “Incivility and Responsibility

  1. Jeannine

    I think this is a really great article. The Internet has made it easy for people to be opinionated because no one can see them and their address is not listed so no one can find them. The Internet also causes people to become socially isolated so we are no longer capable of real discussions unless we are hiding behind our display screens. I doubt people would say the same things if they were sitting in a room together, staring at each other, sitting down on chairs. Some would but not the vast majority. We just don’t have the balls to say it outside the school on the playground. On the Internet though, we can. Also, with reality TV showing un-realistic lifestyles and the media grabbing our attention with soundbites designed to grab onto ignorant minds who do not engage in critical thinking or look at the bigger picture. Plus, more and more murders take place around the world through these new means of annihilation and people are angry and don’t know what to do. Nothing ever changes, we just get upgrades to our computers and are forced sometimes to accept them and then purchase newer more expensive equipment. We are a lost society.

  2. sgbednar Post author

    You make some really good points, Jeannine. I think the internet both makes it easier to connect with people who think like us, but also easier to be rude and combative towards people who don’t. Some people seem to be of two minds, sweet and polite to our faces, but blasting us from the computer when they are able to hide from view. Social media also make it easy to pass on disrespectful views and demonstrably false information without a thought. I’ve seen people do this who I know don’t intend to be hostile. They just haven’t checked out the facts, haven’t thought through how their messages may be received by their friends, and don’t realize that just because one friend posted it that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to pass it on to others. During this political season it seems particularly outrageous. While people may be sincere about things they say, they can come to believe in things that are blatantly false but intentionally circulated by others who are trying to influence them. My only hope in writing this post was to encourage my readers to think before they speak (or write). Despite the craziness around us, I think we can and should do better.