A Rising New Incivility?

April 2018 Feature

Preamble

In contemporary society, a trend towards incivility seems to be rising. This article registers my observations about the shifts. I hope this article will invite many others to consider how we may pushback incivility for the sake of our society and for posterity.

Though the idea of civility may be traced to Confucius in the Eastern hemisphere, and Aristotle and Kant in the Western hemisphere, for this article, I take my reference from George Washington’ recommendation against displaying repulsive behavior and using vulgarity, whether in public or in private conversations (cf., Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, 1888).

I define civility as relating to another person with respect in speech and conduct, regardless of their achievement, educational level, ethnicity, race, religion, social standing or acquired status of honor. Though the measure of civility, i.e., who defines right and wrong, is contextually dependent, my premise is that, people ought to have learned to respect others, in the light of a longstanding tradition in advocating for civility and in recognizing the equality of fellow humans.

Political Incivility?

While partisanship and political rudeness are not unfamiliar in America’s political landscape, Donald Trump’s presidential election and first year presidency have reached a new level of incivility. Trump degraded women, interrupted opponents in public debates, mocked the disabled, name-called, and used sexist comments on nations and women journalists and nations. After he was sworn into office, he has roused discord nationally and insulted various international leaders. Recently, he called two National Football League players who knelt at the singing of the national anthem, “son of a b—h.” A hyper-partisan media that uses blustering further aggravated the political incivility.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for standing up for the powerless. Yet, she denied Rohingyan “minority-ethnic cleansing,” and seemingly condoned the killing of Rohingyan Muslims in 2017. In 2013, she too denied occurrence of ethnic troubles in Rakhine.

To these incidents, we add the brawling and throwing of chairs against fellow politicians in recent Uganda parliamentary debate, occurred at the end of September 2017.

Should not the highest public office seek incumbents who would lead with impeccable character and etiquette to reflect the dignity of their office, despite the realities of corruptions and politicking? Is condoning injustice, and keeping silent about abhorrent, inhumane socio-political situations acceptable? Though politics manifests differently in America and in Myanmar, I am troubled about a consistent wave of political incivility.

Journalistic Civility?

When news readership expects fair and even coverage of significant and pertinent news globally, between August and September 2017, many news agencies in the USA gave focal attention to Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, and almost to the exclusion of covering the even more devastating floods caused by monsoons in Sierra Leone, Nepal, India, and Bangladesh. Has the US media normalized disasters in other regions just like how they sometimes normalized violence in other regions?

Social Media Incivility?

The social media has seen incidents of incivility. The circulation of “fake news” via social media is what most people do not intentionally commit. While not verifying sources before forwarding to one’s social network may be harmless in some situations, fake news can produce consequences far deeper, even as it may add as a social cost.

Social media incivility is also observable in the circulation of viral pictures and videos, staged or un-staged, and the comments generated thereafter. The viral videos include the staged videos intended as advocacy for interest-groups, and the filmed, real life incidents of inappropriate social behaviors (e.g., bullying, sexual preying, cheating, and stealing).

The incivility with regards to viral videos pertains not just to filming someone else in public without their permission (thereby infringing another’s privacy) or shaming them thereafter on social media (which makes us vigilantes of sorts). Perpetuators of impropriety, injustice and violence against others have to be stopped. Alerting the public may deter some from committing impropriety, injustice and violence.

The incivility also pertains to 1) whether to make public the viral video, and 2) how viewers respond to incidents. The public may feel “safer” when incidents are made public. Yet, a viral circulation tends to affect lives, and injure persons and institutions, anger a crowd, risk breaking up social cohesion, and can cause other social problems.

Social Incivility?

Each society develops its culture in light of what it values and prioritises. I believe that given a choice, we would choose to live in a charitable, friendly, gracious, hospitable, kind, inclusive, and respectful society. Yet, have signs of social incivility crept up unnoticed in our hurried and driven lifestyle?

In our phone-distractible society, people check their phones in the middle of a conversation, at a meeting, or over dinner. On MRT rides, some commuters would blast their music without regard for other commuters. In fast-food and coffee outlets, boy and girls, who come from literate and well-to-do family backgrounds, use vulgarities like punctuation marks in their sentences.

Many passengers have had Grab and Uber drivers shouting rudely at them. Many are still aggravated over the SMRT technical problems, train delays, and the groundswell of discontentment with the SMRT CEO’s steep and swift pay increment, amid a fare increment that is not commensurate with a reliable, world-class operation.

On social medias, citizens respond curtly and with vulgarities to express their dissatisfaction and outrage. Name-calling, death threats, profanity, and all manner of insults are hurled at the perpetrator, the victims, and by-standers. In recent years, we have seen, on viral videos, by-standers watching bullying in schools without intervening.

I am betwixt between 1) my desire to encourage citizens to stand up for injustice or call out on inappropriate behaviors, and 2) my concerns about the unintended consequences that comments can stir in an already angry crowd.

On the one hand, as the saying goes – “he/she brought it on himself.” But on the other hand, no one deserves to be treated with violence. When persons in the viral videos are identified in public, some have “given them the finger.” Society judges victims too. The personal stigma, the social stigma, and the implications can continue for years, to the extent of destroying lives, families, institutions.

Postscript

To be sure, incivility is not a unique manifestation in our milieu. Rudeness, hate-speech, and shock jocks existed during Washington’s era too. Even then, philanthropic activities are also readily evident in our generation just as charity was evident in bygone eras. I perceive value in inquiring into the state and development of civility in our time. Is our milieu characterized as what Pankaj Mishra calls, the Age of Anger (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2017)? How did we get here in sociality? How can we pushback the trends of incivility in our time? May this article be a step in the exploration of what may be possible, for re-envisioning our world together.


Rev. Dr. Timothy T. N. Lim, Ph.D., is a Visiting Lecturer at the London School of Theology. His recent book, Ecclesial Recognition with Hegelian Philosophy, Social Psychology, and Continental Political Theory (Brill, 2017), adds to his other publications on christian unity, ecclesiology, interreligious dialogue, and theology.