for release December 8, 2000
by Melodie Davis
Toward A More Civil Society
"I'm afraid history will not look kindly on what (name deleted) has done to our society," said my friend. He was speaking of a particular radio commentator who uses ridicule to express opinions, stirring up rancor and anger among people. How much freedom of thought or expression can there be if we get jumped on and ridiculed for expressing an opinion?
For instance, this commentator regularly slaughters the names of prominent people he doesn't agree with, making up outlandish nicknames. On his web site he calls Al Gore, Algore. He calls feminists Femi-nazis. A small thing, but it is representative of the kind of belittling he fosters. To be fair, he also makes up nicknames for himself, but they are always grandiose. He doesn't usually belittle callers who disagree with him (as opposed to some other talk show hosts), but by his example, I see more of us on both sides of a difference of opinion regularly using ridicule, distrust and put down.
I have to think of a very early activist in the fight against bad TV. Peggy Charren, Founder of Action for Children's Television, said if you observe a stream of water trickling over a patch of ground you say, "How much damage can that stream do?" But if you watch that stream over 20 years, the erosion is significant. I think that civility has greatly eroded in our society and it hasn't been helped by the proliferation of outspoken and outrageous radio and TV commentators on both sides of the political spectrum who are allowed to speak their minds on our airwaves in the name of entertainment. Many schools are involved in various "character education" programs designed to teach character and civility as a way of correcting the values deficit of the last number of years. In an effort not to promote religion, educational systems too often backed away from talking outright about morals and ethics.
Incidentally, did you know that last year in the U.S., a major initiative took place offering guidance to public schools on how to handle religion? Publications called "A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools," an accompanying guide for parents, and a guide on "The Bible and Public Schools" were sent to all public schools in the U.S? Interestingly, the publications came together under a pretty wide ranging group of organizations, school administrators, teachers, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Catholics, Council on Islamic Education, the National Association of Evangelicals, among others. The guides say essentially that schools can neither push nor inhibit religion in schools. The positive thing is that these publications recognize that to send children through 13 years of a broad public education with absolutely no reference to religion was not really "education." The booklets and campaign are an effort to find middle ground for communities too frequently engaged in uncivil battles over specific issues like prayer in schools. (For your own copies call 1-800-830-3733.)
Schools are engaged in extensive "character" building programs and I'm thinking that we adults could benefit from a character building program of our own. The six pillars being taught our children are: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship.
Trust: how many times I have wished for one side to trust the other in the rancor over this fall's elections. Motives are always suspect, actions are frequently interpreted in the opposite way.
Respect: We worry about teens' lack of respect these days, a valid concern. National leaders could do a better job of commanding respect by their actions, but many of us also foster disrespect as we call each other names, labels, and cut each other off. How do children and teens learn respect if they don't see it modeled?
Responsibility: Again, while national leaders could do a better job of accepting responsibility for their actions, how often do we try to slide by underreporting income on tax or parent forms (for higher education loans and grants)?
I think you get the picture-but how can we begin to change it? If I encounter an argument today, can I listen fully, avoid personal attacks and name calling? Can I watch my tone to avoid ridicule? Can I give the other side the benefit of the doubt-until they give me a reason to distrust? Maybe putting these brief ideas into practice personally can help the stream that is drip drip dripping away.
What do you think? Send me your reactions, pro or con, or post them to our web site. And for your free Christmas gift from Another Way, call for our wall calendar at 800-999-3534. Or write: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from a number of organizations including the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three growing daughters.
NOTES TO EDITORS: text = 775 words; end material = 105 words
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