When President Obama spoke at a White House press conference the day after the midterm elections, among his most salient points was his statement that our country must embrace civility again. No truer words could have been spoken. We witnessed a veritable slugfest among candidates leading up to Election Day, everything from a plethora of mean-spirited advertising to a man stomping on a woman's face outside a Rand Paul rally. Not to mention the ever-curious Sarah Palin, who straight out referred to one CBS affiliate's staff as "corrupt bastards."
Rude words and deeds are not limited to politicians. It's no longer shocking to see someone rush by an old person attempting to cross the street or push someone out of the way to get onto a crowded subway. Oh yeah, what about the person who seems to be screaming her personal business into her cell phone while she's sitting next to you on the bus?
Or the guard I saw at my election polling station who was spewing expletives as people walked in to vote, a man who is sadly no different from the countless people who bat about profanities while standing within earshot of children? Or the banquet hall filled with black-tie guests who neglect to shut up when someone is speaking at the dais or performing for them?
How did it come to this? I believe that the balance between technology and humanity is askew. Our use of technology has helped to insulate us from others, along with the consequences of our actions toward them. Many people do not directly interact the way they did even 10 years ago, although they are surrounded by others.
If you stand still and look around Almost Anywhere USA, you are bound to see people talking on cell phones (even while crossing the street), texting (while with a group of friends), typing into a computer (while eating dinner with the family) or playing electronic games (while waiting for a meal at a restaurant). In all cases they are distracted by technology when they are supposed to be having one-on-one contact with other people.
Times have changed. Somehow the anonymity that our cultural embrace of technology offers has also emboldened many of us to speak our minds uncensored. For example, years ago, if you wanted to express your opinion about a newspaper story you had to write a letter, put it in the mail and see if it would be selected as a letter to the editor. Today anyone can anonymously react online to other people's words, in the moment. And as I have experienced right here on The Root, some of the commentary can be vile to a degree that I believe would be highly unlikely if the person had to reveal his or her identity.
And that's not all. Thanks to the decline of our economy, people are allowing their worst behavior to come out. This happens when people are worried that there is not enough to go around and desperation sets in. Darwinism overtakes them, and they decide, even if it's an unconscious decision, that they will get theirs — no matter what.
Hence the shoving to get on the next train. The backstabbing at work to push someone out of a coveted job. The cruel commentary that diminishes a competitor's standing and potentially shines a light on the commentator. Even the stealing of another's spouse or partner, because that's who you want, regardless of whether the person is available. While such things took place before the economy went south, I would argue that they happen more often now.
Is it too late to turn ourselves around? I was on the Today show recently, exploring this topic with Matt Lauer. He wanted to know whether there really is a chance for us to resurrect the goodness that many of us were taught by our families. When I posed that question to my Facebook family, the resounding answer was that parents are to blame for not teaching their children how to behave. Neither by example nor by lesson, many contended, have the parents of America stepped up to ensure that their children have the tools needed to keep a level head and navigate our world with grace, dignity and skill.
Perhaps that is true for some, but I contend that we absolutely cannot give up on our children. As the cheesy old saying goes, they are our future. It is our responsibility to arm them with the necessary tools to make ours a better world.
First we have to become conscious of our own behavior. Have you ever talked on your cell phone while making a transaction at a store? Have you ever done it with your child present? I'm sorry to say that I have. Here's another one: Have you ever gotten so worked up in a conversation that it turns out you were actually talking over the other person? Can you see that such a one-sided interaction is rude? Try noticing next time when your behavior is inappropriate, and stop in that moment of awareness.
That's when the magic comes in — when we realize what we are doing and make the decision not to do it anymore. As intelligent human beings, we can change our behavior and engage technology as a tool for enhancing our lives instead of allowing it to control us.
We have to retrain ourselves. That's why debate teams were so good back in the day. They taught people how to engage in intense discourse in which people disagreed while remaining respectful toward one another. The tools still exist for learning how to be conscientious communicators. But it requires paying attention all the time. It calls for the golden rule. If you actually did unto others as you would have them do unto you, do you think you would do all the things that are currently part of your behavioral repertoire? I bet not.
So why don't we all agree to try a social experiment? Before speaking or acting, let's take a deep breath and consider what impact our thoughts, words and deeds might have on someone else. Only after you've played out a scenario all the way to its end in your head is it time to act. Let's practice being conscious and intentional for a day, for starters. Then for two days. Then a week. That's how we can reclaim civility: one act at a time.
Harriette Cole is the president and creative director of Harriette Cole Media. She is a life stylist, a best-selling author and a nationally syndicated advice columnist. She is a contributing editor to The Root.