Why Civility is Worth Defending
By Ryan Lindsey
What do you do with the mad that you feel
When you feel so mad you could bite?
When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong…
And nothing you do seems very right?
What do you do? Do you punch a bag?
Do you pound some clay or some dough?
Do you round up friends for a game of tag?
Or see how fast you go?
It’s great to be able to stop
When you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong,
And be able to do something else instead
And think this song:
I can stop when I want to
Can stop when I wish
I can stop, stop, stop any time.
And what a good feeling to feel like this
And know that the feeling is really mine.
Know that there’s something deep inside
That helps us become what we can.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but 2019 America seemed like a pretty brutal place. It’s like we were all in sync and in agreement on two things and two things only — people that aren’t like you are trash, and you should go for their jugulars anytime you get a chance.
Politicians, celebrities, bankers and financiers, media personalities and talking heads, neighbors with opposing views — it seems like all of us are just lurking around like brutish, ugly toads waiting to trounce one another. We’ve knotted our likelihood of feeling happy to our ability to witness and inflict embarrassment, inconvenience, or pain on the enemies we’ve all fashioned each other in to.
We’ve praised nastiness. This is obvious among the right-bent portion of society (I mean, come on — Donald Trump is their idol), but it was equally prevalent among the lefties as well. And don’t think you get a pass on this centrists; some of the most condescending and stuck-up skim-milk rhetoric in history has come from y’all this past year or so.
We get a thrill from the suffering of others. That might sound dramatic but it’s true, it is. Maybe you saw someone losing their job and becoming a pariah because it was uncovered that they maintained a rather racist presence on social media, and you just really, really liked that. Maybe you saw a news story about someone who was a gun control advocate get robbed or assaulted, and you reveled in the “irony”. Maybe you saw the fault lines in a certain president’s mental state start to crack and you just couldn’t get enough of the presently-occurring meltdown. Maybe you witnessed someone’s hopes and dreams crumble around them as their political campaign imploded.
Maybe it’s just me who really enjoyed seeing multiple peoples’ lives get ripped to shreds last year, but I doubt it.
This is all in a strange juxtaposition to the fact that reminders to empathy’s existence are also seemingly increasingly bombarding us nowadays. Take, for example, the surprising (but delightful) revival that Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood have had in the national consciousness these past few years. Even though the man has been dead for over a decade now, all the sudden there have been multiple movies made about him, even more books and magazine articles (of which this very piece is just a small part of the trend) written about him, and countless conversations are conducted about him every day.
Is this all just a matter of us not practicing what we preach? That wouldn’t be terribly uncommon. Or is the problem that we simply didn’t really learn anything at all from watching Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood? Did Fred fail at his mission of trying to make us better at loving each other? Was he really doing nothing more than playing with puppets to no avail?
So all the while that we can’t stop screaming “Fuck you!” at each other, we’re also totally enamored with a gentle, kind, and wise pastor from Pennsylvania who just happens to be the king of that critical part of human relation called empathy (don’t worry though King Friday — you’re still the best royalty around).
It makes no sense.
It’s really pretty infuriating.
What exactly are we all doing wrong?
And how disappointed would Fred be in all of us?
The cause of the quagmirical crossover of our collective crankiness towards each other and impassioned interest in Fred Rogers lies — I believe — in a disconnect between out feelings and actions. We get that empathy is important, we just don’t act on it.
We hear a lot about empathy. A lot to the point where it often it often sounds hollow. The word is everywhere — t-shirts, book bags, bumper stickers, campaign speeches, Instagram accounts all reminding us that we can choose empathy, making it feel as if choosing to empathize with others is all it would take to fix a world that so often feels broken. But if we want to fix the world, then we have to take our empathy and do something with it.
Doing something with it.
Easier aid than done, right?
Fortunately for us, there’s Mr. Rodgers.
You see, he didn’t only tell us how important empathy is (that’s the part of his message that we all seem to have down for the most part). He also used his show to explicitly show us what empathy can look like as action rather than just as an electronic pulse in your gray matter.
Take for example Fred’s famous foot bath with with Officer Clemmons (who was black) at the height of the battle over segregated swimming pools. Mr. Rodger’s didn’t just vaguely tell us to try and empathize with everyone; he got someone who represented a group that desperately needed empathy and action, and showed the children of that day exactly what they could do practically in their lives to spread love.
Empathy without action is just a pointless jolt of nice-feeling chemicals to your brain. Mr. Rodger’s showed us how to do more.
If Mr. Rogers was still alive today, what do you think he’d have to say about the state of things? What would Fred’s state of the union sound like? (I mean, I know would probably include pleasant melodies and some puppet appearances, but what would the meat of it be?)
In all honesty, he’d probably be disappointed but not all that surprised — it’s not like the public atmosphere the last couple decades of his life were all sunshine and roses. I think he’d be genuinely shocked that we were still at war in the Middle East to the extent that we are. I think he’d be disgusted by the scenes coming from the CBP camps in New Mexico and Texas. I think he’d be puzzled by our insistence on trying to solve increasingly minuscule problems in public political death matches at the national level. But aside from all that, what I think would shock, disgust, and puzzle him the most though would be just how absolutely uncivil we’ve all become.
You see, in all things (at least, from what I’ve been able to see of his life) Fred Rogers was civil. This doesn’t mean that he wasn’t passionate or unable/unwilling to take sides in heated matters. This doesn’t mean that he would partake in compromises with evil or would sacrifice his moral values for quaint calls of “unity”. It means that in all things Fred Rogers never lost sight of the humanity of the people he disagreed with. He didn’t have enemies, he just had neighbors who didn’t agree with him sometimes.
Seriously, imagine if he were still alive and someone tried to bait Mr. Rogers on Twitter. Maybe Fred had just made a sad comment about the separation of immigrant children from their families and @RealDonaldTrump had this to say:
Dopey @YourNeighborFred143 is low energy and wants open borders! He’s just jealous that my ratings were always higher than his – a real embarrassment to television who tries (and fails bigly) to influence YOUR CHILDREN! Sad!
Would Mr. Rogers “clap-back” with some sassy retort? Would he take the opportunity to dissect piece-by-piece why the president’s policies were awful? Would he get drug into some sort of mud-slinging match between his fans and the MAGA crowd.
I’m not gonna pretend to have an inkling of an idea what he would say, but I think it’s pretty obvious some of the things he wouldn’t. And unfortunately, many of those responses that he’d avoid would be our first resorts.
Obviously I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet a fair amount that if Mr. Roger’s had one idea for improving America in 2020, one plea for all of us to heed, it would be for all of us to not forsake kindness. To be civil.
Now, I don’t want this call to civility to be confused with the attempts by some politicians to replace principle and moral-fortitude with mere cooperation. (I’m riding on the coattails of Fred Rogers, not Joe Biden or Mayor Pete.) Civility doesn’t mean compromising your values or avoiding tough fights that matter.
On the contrary, I’d say part of civility is standing up and speaking out against policies and actions that are inherently uncivil, inherently anti-social. Speaking out against ICE tactics is not an uncivil act. Protesting efforts to impose authoritarian society barriers on the populous is not uncivil. At least, those things aren’t inherently uncivil. But vilifying those with positions different than — or even counter to — yours and seeing them as a policy obstacle first and a fellow human second or third… well, that is uncivil.
What if we followed one simple principle I like to call Rogerism: whatever you fight for, do it civilly. If you can’t do that, then figure out how to. After all, in theory, it should be pretty easy, right? Just embrace your own feelings, empathize with others, and act in a way that respects them (and that respects and acknowledges your own ability to be an empathetic and decent person).
But why? What exactly is so important about civility? Why did Mr. Rogers put such a high value on it?
I think the answers to these questions are numerous, and I can’t say exactly why Fred Rogers championed civility so much. That being said, I’ll give three of my best guesses/reasons as to way I think that all of us should strive to maintain Rogerism in our own lives and interactions.
First, I believe that civility is worth defending because it is essentially the manifestation of living virtuously. Civility is a natural side-effect of acting out the virtues in your day-to-day interactions.
Now, there’s a fair amount of debate as to what “the virtues” are, what they stand for, why they’re significant, etc. Addressing these issues would (and does) take up lengthy, lengthy tomes of philosophy of religion so out of necessity I’ll have to ignore those questions here. But for the purpose of this article, just know that I personally accept the following to be “the virtues”:
Look at these qualities. Think about them. Do you think you can be practicing these traits and acting uncivil at the same time? If your list of virtues is different than this (which it probably is), that’s fine — regardless, I do not think it possible to live in a consistently virtuous manner and a consistently uncivil manner. The two adjectives (virtuous and uncivil) are simply incompatible.
Can you be expressing kindness while also being uncivil? Or be truthful to yourself while denying your own self-evident ability to foster civility? Do the acts of being a good friend and an uncivil opponent go hand-in-hand? Does practicing incivility show a strong sense of patience? Doesn’t incivility show more of a lack of hope than an abundance of it? And is the aim of incivility really justice, or just personal vindication? Is it more courageous to work through issues with mutual respect and courtesy or with insults and buffoonery? Aren’t the least civil among us often the most prideful? And if you think about it, don’t disrespect and ill-will often rob you and others of joy? Surely there are better ways to be generous than being generous with vitriol? And wouldn’t civility be better constant character trait than incivility?
Call them the virtues, call them living well, call them whatever you want — the fact remains that civility always, always aligns more closely with them than incivility.
Secondly, I think that incivility inevitably metastasizes from our words and thoughts and infects our actions in tragic ways that hurt the most vulnerable among us. If we foster an attitude of contempt for our own literal neighbors just because they have different social views than us, then how much easier is it to feel disgust for our political opponents across the country who we never meet? If we can be disgusted by our domestic political opponents, how much easier is it to dehumanize people across the globe, especially in countries and cultures quite different from ours? If we can dehumanize people in cultures that seem absolutely bizarre to us, then how much easier is it to just go along with the program when our president tells us that we bombed them and invaded them and occupy them?
This might seem like a stretch, but I don’t think it really is that much of one. If we’re incapable of respecting and empathizing with the people down the block, how are we supposed to truly value the humanity of Iraqis or Iranians or North Koreans or Syrians or Russians?
If we detest our own family members because of their opinions, how are we supposed to care about the lives of the homeless, the drug-addicted, the sexually-exploited, the economically depressed outside of our own orbits?
And of course I’m not about to make the ridiculous claim that simply making our domestic discourse calmer will cure all our social ills and usher in an era of world peace — many presidents who history considers to be “civil” and “respectable” were frightful warmongers and social authoritarians. But at least the civility gave an air of gravitas to the violence and gave it more weight than it has now. It’s a start, a definite step in the right direction. We should practice and promote civility because goodness is contagious.
Maybe, just maybe, if I show some small kindness to other people, then they’ll show some small kindness to other people, and maybe — just maybe — we’ll start a chain reaction that spans the globe.
The third and final reason I will go into for justifying the importance placed on civility comes from another lesson from dear Mr. Rogers: “You were a child once too.”
You were a child once too.
Just imagine if we all took this simple six-word phrase and ingrained it into every encounter we were a part of. And I don’t just mean in the sense of rediscovering the innocence and sense of wonder that came with childhood, but what if we started trying to truly, actively apply this motif to others as well.
They were a child once too.
Maybe we’d start viewing different ideas as something to learn from, rather than something to fear. Maybe we’d start viewing our “enemies” as “just not our friends, yet”. Maybe we’d start realizing that our own meanness is often just our own hurt in a different shape, and that maybe mean people are really just hurting people. Maybe we’d be quicker to give out hugs or to share our snacks than to give out ad homs and share our wrath.
Just think about this simple phrase the next time you get in an argument with someone (I promise to try as well). I bet it’s a lot harder to view someone as a sub-human piece of shit when you force yourself to remember that they were once a child too. They were once innocent and they probably had big ‘ol dreams for their life and wonderful, magical ideas about how the world could and should work. They were probably hurt somewhere along the way (like you probably were) and they probably lost a lot of that beautiful childhoodness (like you probably did).
And chances are, now they’re just trying to do what they genuinely think is right (just like you are).
In fact, I want to try this exercise out now with myself. Over the last four years, I’ve made no secret about how deep my disdain for Donald Trump is. But looking back on my own thoughts and behavior, I see a troubling trend of me viewing him exactly like he views so many others. I treat him like he treats the people that I get mad at him for for treating badly. Yikes.
Now, I’m not going to mince words — I’m sorry, but you are often extremely rude and mean, you take offense and lash out viciously at the slightest slights, and it’s hard for me to disbelieve that your ego is out-of-control. I think you’re dangerous to a lot of good people.
But you were a child once too. And I’m genuinely trying to be sorry for all the things that happened to you that have made you feel insecure or like you lacked anything, like you weren’t enough. Were you bullied and got tired of it, so one day you decided to become the bully instead? I know I’ve been at that bridge and crossed it on the wrong side before. Did you parents not love you tenderly enough, or give you attention when you really, really did need it? Maybe you were — like me — always the last to get picked for kick ball or two-hand touch football or whatever. That sucks man, it really does.
Whatever it is that happened to you, some things not to terribly different probably happened to me too. And maybe I didn’t end up with all your issues, but I’ve probably got plenty of my own that you either already took care of or never had to begin with.
I hope you have a good day and make kind choices. And please, let’s make a deal, just give Twitter a rest for a few hours and I’ll do the same with Facebook.
I can honestly say that that made me feel better. Why don’t you try it now?
Like I said before, I don’t think that rebuilding some sense of civility is the key to solving all of our problems as a country and species. I just think it’s a great place to start, and in the life and lessons of Mr. Rogers we have a great teacher to show us the way.
So what do you say — do y’all wanna keep slinging mud at each other and hitting ourselves upside the head, or do we want to start being unrelentingly kind, fiercely empathetic, and insistently intimate?
We all like Mr. Rogers, but do we like Rogerism?
Ryan Lindsey is the founder and editor of WAL Reader, and an avid consumer of Mr. Rogers-related content.