Surprised by civility

Columnist Lionel Foster finds that — with some notable exceptions — most people who respond to his words are reasonable, even kind

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If you are anything like me, then your feelings about the city — this city, any city — are bittersweet. As you peer over your shoulder while walking down an unfamiliar street or lock yourself in for the evening, you have some idea, right or wrong, of what a stranger might do.

You hope for the best and brace for the worst, as I did six months ago when I began this column. Back then, I had my own ideas about how many people would read it, what percentage might bother to write, and how many of them would do so only because I'd ticked them off. All of my guesses were wrong.

I've heard from lifers and transplants, people who grew up in Baltimore in the '50s and those who arrived in the '80s but want exactly the same thing. Some offer quick anecdotes, while others type out their entire life story.

I'm a progressive, black writer from the 'hood, but one reader who described himself as a tea party member whose family "came to America as refugees from Russian-occupied Czechoslovakia" wrote to explain what we have in common. "I still have a nervous twitch," he admitted, "any time I hear footsteps behind me."

I've heard from teachers, students, volunteers, heads of nonprofit organizations and a few politicians. And every Friday that she can find me, one of the janitors at my day job stops by to say she saw me in print. It is a self-selecting sample, but if these writers and tweeters and passersby are any indication, then the average person is kinder than most would dare to guess.

But there are notable exceptions.

One gentleman wanted my opinion on a book that, in at least one chapter, ignored the details of the lives of thousands of people it described in one section of Baltimore and wrote them all off as "ghetto dwellers." I couldn't finish it. Another thought it would be useful if we went back to calling children born to unwed mothers "illegitimate." And when I suggested that the idea of what constitutes a family may be evolving with technology and the quickening pace of life in America, one online reader wrote, "Adapting? By living with an overworked and underemployed mother with no father in sight? ... Man, you are living in lala land if you think these kids are doing well ... The jury is still out on your own family ..."

Some of the worst comments stem from ignorance, but a few are vicious, cowardly acts. The fact that they can be made anonymously and routed through miles of cable or over the airwaves makes it a little easier to forget that the person on the receiving end might not live that far away — I write about local issues — and is not just a screen name but a human being.

Yet by writing, even some of the angriest and most misguided among us show that they, too, have a need to connect and engage. And as we reach out, the assumptions we make about the people on the other end are hugely important. These assumptions influence everything from how and whether we vote, to where we choose to live, to how likely we are to invest in public institutions, pay taxes, donate to charity and volunteer. Our lives depend on precarious connections between strangers. How do we keep it all together?

A few weeks ago, after the debate in the comment section beneath a story I wrote on black empowerment became ugly, one reader quoted a passage from Cornel West's 1994 book "Race Matters." "In these downbeat times," the passage began, "we need as much hope and courage as we do vision and analysis; we must accent the best of each other even as we point out the vicious effects of our racial divide and pernicious consequences of our maldistribution of wealth and power. We simply cannot enter the twenty-first century at each other's throats ..." That reader didn't hide behind her computer. She left her name, Pam Block Brier, and affiliation, Baltimore Urban Debate League.

So let me offer this. For those of you who find yourselves flailing at the edge of frustration, just a step or two from despair, I'd like to extend a lifeline. I've been there too but am less likely to go back now, because the average person, I've discovered, is kinder than you might hope to imagine.

Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. Email: lionel@lionelfoster.com. Twitter: @LionelBMD.

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