As a youngster, I remember being taught to offer your seat on the bus to any elderly person. It was not unusual to see people offering to help carry a heavy or awkward box when a perfect stranger was obviously struggling with one.
In today’s culture, it would not be unusual for the stranger to encounter harsh criticism instead of help, because he failed to appropriately plan the transport of the heavy box. What has produced the coarsening of attitudes in modern society? Are the crude and mean-spirited comments heard on television and read in the print media having an undesirable effect on the populace at large?
The key to civility is thinking about others first. When we only think about what makes us feel or look good, it becomes easier to disregard the needs and feelings of others. Prior to the severe economic downturn in 2008, a number of selfish, greedy business types, with complicity from public officials, created schemes to entice relatively inexperienced people to purchase houses that significantly ignored the old, established rule of never taking out a mortgage that was more than 2 times one’s annual salary.
These and other types of paper-pushing manipulations by a small but influential segment of Wall Street types and politicians produced enormous fortunes for many who actually produced little or nothing of value. I do not in any way resent great wealth and, in fact, I greatly admire many of my fellow Americans who, through their creativity and dedicated hard work, have make contributions that were valuable to many while enriching themselves. That is what capitalism is about. However, when people practice deceit and use clever tactics to enrich themselves or pass legislation at the expense of others, admiration quickly morphs into disgust. Other than Bernie Madoff and a few notable others, not many of these greedy individuals suffered any consequences for their part in the near-destruction of our economy and the shattering of the dreams of millions of Americans.
Is it possible that during their formative years, these unethical and uncaring individuals were also influenced by the mean-spirited and self-centered behavior of those in the media or on the political scene who were held in high esteem while practicing mean and deceitful behavior? I am not saying that lack of civility is the root cause of all evil in our society, but I am saying that it can have a profound effect on our feelings toward others and their feelings toward us. Civility and political correctness, contrary to the thinking of many, are not the same. Civility constrains behavior and words based on genuine caring about others, while political correctness is only a facade of caring while hoping to cultivate public approval.
Much politically correct behavior bears no resemblance to logic and common sense. For instance, there was a recent, widely publicized case of a 6-year-old boy in Colorado who was suspended from school for kissing the hand of a classmate. He was initially charged with sexual abuse, but after the public outcry, the charges were downgraded. Many people in the scientific community know that the human brain continues to mature and develop until about age 18. Immature children such as the little boy generally don’t even know what sexual abuse is.
Teachers are forced into the role of political-correctness police by bureaucratic administrators who, in many cases, obviously have no sense of the psychological makeup of young children. The potential to do harm to little children by administrative acts of this level of stupidity is tremendous. If we continue down this road of absurdity, we will produce a generation of paranoid and dysfunctional individuals who will eventually be in charge of taking care of those of us who are imposing these rules of political correctness upon them today.
Civility and honesty are highly desirable traits, which should be imparted to our children both through example and planned lessons. This teaching should begin in the home, but certainly teachers, school administrators and other responsible adults should take every opportunity to facilitate the learning process. On the other hand, we must not fall into the trap of being so concerned about innocent words and deeds that we destroy people while worshipping ill-conceived rules of speech and behavior.
It is unreasonable to expect a civil and compassionate society to emerge from a culture that tolerates and often even encourages cruel and dishonest behavior from its leading commentators and leaders. I do not believe these people are capable of seeing fault within themselves. Blinded by their ideology, they are incapable of seeing things from the view of others.
Those of us who can still recognize imperfections in everyone, including ourselves, must not give up on decency, values and godly principles of loving one’s neighbor and developing one’s God-given talents to the utmost. They must strive to become valuable to the people around them and have principles that govern their lives. This has nothing to do with political parties, but has everything to do with the future of our nation.
Ben S. Carson is professor emeritus of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University.