Looking for a Path Back to Civility

Looking for a Path Back to Civility

Opinion Piece published in Newsday, 9-17-17

By Andrew Malekoff, Executive Director, North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center and Long Beach resident

My family lives in a high ranch in a section of Long Beach known as “the canals.” The houses sit close together, sometimes just yards apart. One warm August afternoon many years ago, one of my neighbors lit his fireplace. Our windows were wide open and in no time our house filled with smoke. We appealed to our neighbors to wait until the weather was a little cooler. Later that evening, we were again invaded by smoke.

After one more attempt to address the problem civilly, it became clear to me that our neighbors did not appreciate that their pleasure was our pain. Drawing on my knowledge of nonviolent tactics to resolve conflict, I went door to door on the street to enlist support and called local officials. Some neighbors spoke up about the problem. The fireplace problem was soon resolved.

Years later, I was out for an early morning bike ride on East Park Avenue in Long Beach when I was run down by a driver who subscribed to the now-popular practice of turning right on red without coming to a full stop. The irate driver exited his car, pointed up and hollered, “I had green!” He backed off when I corrected him, loudly, from my prone position underneath my mangled bicycle. I survived with a few bumps and bruises. When he saw the shape of my bike, he threw a $50 bill at me and said, “This is for your bike.”

Most people I talk to agree that civility is on the decline. Everyone seems to have his or her own horror stories, whether it is inconsiderate neighbors or co-workers, aggressive driving or just plain rudeness. There are books on the subject. Titles include “The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct” and “A Short History of Rudeness.” Another is “The Duel in Early Modern England: Civility, Politeness and Honour.” Ah, yes, those were the days.

We have become all too familiar with the epidemic of F-bombs that pepper civic discourse, pervasive public cellphone calls and drunkenness at sporting events. We live in a time when every movie theater begins with a public service announcement stating ground rules for being considerate.

Highways have become the Wild West. Hardly anyone comes to a complete stop for a stop sign. The yellow traffic signal has evolved from its original meaning, slow down, to speed up. And, of course, there are tailgating, middle-finger salutes and rampant road rage.

Today, there is so much talk about putting an end to bullying in schools. Yet, we live in a world of adults who don’t think twice about trampling personal boundaries through rude, intimidating and obnoxious behavior.

It never fails to surprise me, when I travel somewhere, to see drivers stop for pedestrians, and people of all ages wave and say, “Good morning.”

If we cannot reverse the trend, we can at least slow down and teach our children, after we remind ourselves, the importance of putting a pause between impulse and action. Perhaps it is somewhere inside of that sacred space that we can find our way back to a civil society.