CIVILITY

IVAN HOFFMAN



        I realize that it is hard to imagine an attorney, which is my profession, caring about civility.  Indeed, some may believe that using the terms "civility" and "attorney" in the same sentence is grammatically, if not legally, impermissible.

        But I am both an attorney and a person who, even within the 4 corners of my profession, cares about civility.

        And for whatever the reasons-- the "me first" of the 1980's, the loss of idealism starting with the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963, the other assassinations of 1968, 9-11--whatever the reasons, we seem collectively to have lost a sense of civility.

        And we can only have a collective loss if we have a loss at the individual level since the collective is only all of us added up together.  It's not like there is a world, you know-- out there, without involving us individually.

        In a sense, it is our collective failure to return one another’s telephone calls or emails that is, at the roots, the cause of this loss of civility..  We all seem to be on the verge of exploding, though most of us vent our anger in socially acceptable ways.  We choose to act more subtly but equally effectively.  But the insecurities and fears and frustrations inside each  of us are boiling just below our peaceful façades.  Given the slightest reason, we take out these frustrations on others in ways society has come to accept as normal.

        People who do not like themselves and their own images turn that dislike outside themselves and onto others.  We treat others in the way we feel we have been treated in our lives, whether or not those feelings are true.  If we feel we are unworthy, we treat others as though they are unworthy.

        When, for example, we get upset with the telephone company in the person of a clerk, or the bank in the person of the teller, rather than recognizing the source of our frustration and empathizing with our collective plight, we vent this frustration on that other person, and they do the same.  Their need to maintain their job is more important than the underlying moral principles.  That belief makes them defend the "system" that is equally oppressive to all of us.  And our response to their conduct makes us behave similarly.  Each of us is trying to out "Oh! Yeah!?" the other.

        When we treat each other discourteously by, for example, not returning telephone calls or emails, we are passing along our own ill feelings.  What we are in reality saying to one another is, "I am angry at the world.  I am not in control of the world.  I cannot do anything about much of this lack of control, so I will take it out on you by attempting to exercise control over you."  This sort of conduct leads to increased frustration in the recipient of your conduct and that recipient inevitably passes that frustration along to someone else, who does the same.  And, like the childhood game of "Telephone," what starts out at 9:00AM as one thing, by 5:00PM becomes you yelling at others on the freeway going home.

        We deny to others that which we have denied to ourselves.  If we are not free, we fear giving others the right to be free.  Instead, we must regard ourselves as the source of all power and weakness, and not divorce ourselves from the consequences of our conduct by relegating our actions to the machinations of some "system," the mythical "them."    The world is a consequence of what each of us is.  How the world behaves is an aggregation of how each of us behaves.  We are the universe and it is us.

        We like to think of ourselves as separated from this process.  But it is well to remember the words of the 18th century English poet, William Blake, who wrote:

Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.
        For it seems to me that if we do not respect the rights of others it may be because we do not respect ourselves.  If we cannot act toward someone else with civility, we reflect our own lack of civility.  It takes the secure individual, the person who knows who they are and what they are about to give rights to another.  When we deny others their rights it seems a certain reflection on our own lack of self-worth.  It is as though there were some finite amount of civility in the world and if we provide it to someone else, we may find ourselves lacking in the same.  This is one of the ways in which the idea of scarcity makes itself apparent in “real life.”   If there’s not enough of anything to go around, then by all means get all you can and ignore the rights of the other.  If we see the world as scarce, this all makes sense.

        And perhaps all the loss we experienced collectively during the past 40 or so years have made us see the world in this fashion.

        That's what I believe.

Copyright © 2008 Ivan Hoffman. All Rights Reserved.
 


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