Batavick: The need for civility

We live in rancorous times. Why just politely disagree with someone when you can also hurl slurs and epithets? Why try to make reasoned arguments when your antagonist so easily plays a shape-shifter with the truth? Whatever happened to civility in private and public discourse?

All is not lost. If we care to look for help, the remedies to this bad behavior can be found in the personas of two iconic Americans — one famous for his wooden teeth; the other for his sweaters.


Foundations Magazine recently featured an article about the 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. These guidelines were obtained in a list that the 16-year-old George Washington copied by hand. His original manuscript survives and is based on a set of rules compiled in 1595 by French Jesuits.

Just read a few of the following maxims to realize how far we have fallen in civil discourse: “Let your conversation be without malice or envy. Reproach none for the infirmities of nature. Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present. Speak not injurious words neither in jest nor earnest. Scoff at none although they give occasion. Be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth thereof. Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad company.”

Just imagine if the above rules were guidelines for politicians, op-ed columns, reader comments, and the renewal of broadcast licenses by the Federal Communications Commission. There was a time when such licenses were predicated on following the “Fairness Doctrine,” a federal mandate to present controversial issues important to public understanding in ways that were honest, equitable and balanced in the eyes of the FCC. I do miss it.

The second model of civility is Fred Rogers of the classic PBS children’s series “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” My wife and I saw a new documentary about him, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” a few weeks ago in Baltimore. Through a deft blending of interviews with Fred, his co-workers and family members, and a TV critic, and a collection of touching clips from vintage shows, we were reminded of the impact of this soft-spoken public crusader. Central to Rogers’ message was the belief that goodness and kindness were essential virtues for society. Rogers also continually assured young viewers that each was important in his or her own special way.

What’s not to like? Well, in 2007 “Fox and Friends” attacked Mr. Rogers as “evil” for helping to create those selfish Gen X-ers. It seems he ruined them by affirming how important and special they were.

Rogers began his career studying for the Presbyterian ministry, but he soon adopted the TV studio as his pulpit. He did so to counterbalance the violent and clownish kids’ shows then on the air, like “Soupy Sales” and “The Banana Splits.” In one of his interviews, he asserts, "Television has the chance of building a real community out of an entire country." Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. What we have today is a landscape of isolated silos tuned only to TV shows that reinforce their viewers’ ossified world views and partisan opinions.

Rogers had a gift for applying simplistic and age-appropriate approaches to radical and complex problems. When there was a public outcry about attempts by minorities to integrate public swimming pools, Rogers did a show in which he invited the town’s policeman, who happened to be black, to dip his feet in a small backyard pool with him. When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, Rogers used an inquiring tiger puppet, an actress playing Lady Aberlin, and the blowing up and deflating of a balloon to subtly show the loss of the breath of life.

In the first week of series production in 1966, Rogers wrote and hosted a show about mean King Friday XIII who orders a wall built around his kingdom to keep out people he doesn’t like. He eventually changes his mind when those beyond the wall drop a series of balloons with cards bearing such messages as “love” and “coexistence.”

Given the current tariff and immigration problems festering with Mexico and Canada, we’re in dire need of the civility espoused by the young George Washington and the love and caring promulgated by Mr. Rogers. Imagine singing to Canada and Mexico, “Let's make the most of this beautiful day. Since we're together, might as well say, ‘Would you be my, could you be my, won't you be my neighbor?’”