Time for a refresher of ‘Rules of Civility’

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Rarely a day goes by that I don’t shake my head at the headlines — both local and national — of people behaving badly.

We’re living in a time when it has become commonplace to openly bash each other online, or literally bash each other in cases of road rage and other altercations. In the name of free speech many Americans believe they have the right to say anything, no matter whom it may harm.

Last night I was scrolling through the Fargo Forum website (it’s the daily newspaper in the area where I grew up) and was horrified to read about a North Dakota woman who threatened a group of three Muslim women in a Wal-Mart parking lot, telling them “we’re gonna kill all of ya. We’re gonna kill every one of ya.”

The angry woman lost her accounting job because of her tirade, and now the mayor of Fargo is calling for tolerance and action because there have been several similar confrontation between Muslim and non-Muslin people in the Fargo metropolitan area over the past six months. This is in Fargo, right next door to Minnesota, where “Minnesota nice” is an actual definition of how people there behave with polite friendliness toward one another.

The fact that we have a president and politicians on both sides of the aisle who think they can do and say anything without consequences is only part of the problem.

Civility in America is in a downward spiral because social media enables cyber bullies. TV talk shows celebrate tawdry and lewd behavior. We can’t seem to turn away from reality shows that showcase “bad” housewives or mean-spirited dance teachers who belittle their students.

It was all bound to catch up with America, and it has in a big way.

A good friend gave me a lovely novel for my birthday called “Rules of Civility” by Amor Towles. It’s about a young woman trying to find her place in life during the 1930s in New York City as she brushes up against the upper echelons of society.

In the back of the book is a list of George Washington’s 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conservation.” I had never heard of these rules, so I looked it up. Our first president wrote out this entire list by hand at age 16 as part of a penmanship exercise at school. The Rules of Civility are said to be based on a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595.

Many of the directives used to be considered a matter of common courtesy, like rule No. 1: “Every action done in company, ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present.”

“Today many, if not all of these rules, sound a little fussy if not downright silly,” an article in Foundations Magazine notes. “It would be easy to dismiss them as outdated and appropriate to a time of powdered wigs and quills, but they reflect a focus that is increasingly difficult to find. The rules have in common a focus on other people rather than the narrow focus of our own self-interests that we find so prevalent today.

“Fussy or not, they represent more than just manners. They are the small sacrifices that we should all be willing to make for the good of all and the sake of living together.”

Perhaps it’s time again to encourage students to write out the “Rules of Civility.” If that’s too burdensome, there are two basic lessons in civility that should be become part of every person’s psyche. First, the Golden Rule — “Do unto others what you would have them do onto you.” And even more elementary is Thumper’s advice in the story of Bambi: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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