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It has been said that we, in the United States, have lost our sense of civility. Verbiage has become more nasty, music has become more raw, TV has become more explicit, and many of our politicians no longer treat each other with respect. What do you think? Consider the following discussion before you answer:

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In the twenty-five minute recording, a historian at the Harvard Business School, Nancy Koehn, discusses the concept of civility with WGBH radio hosts Jim Braude and Margery Eagan.

Koehn references English author Jane Austen’s sense of civility as being the responsibility one has when living within a democratic, market-based society. This goes beyond good manners, Koehn argues, and includes the respect one has for other people and other opinions. Koehn and the hosts share anecdotes about instances of incivility they have experienced or heard about, each with the theme of people prioritizing their self-interest above interacting productively with others.

Braude feels that incivility has reached a “crisis level” because we “like things the way they are.” He likens this to the wealth of “horrible television.” It wouldn’t exist if people didn’t enjoy it.

Koehn disagrees. She feels that there are forces at work that prefer people to be divided and isolated from one another. In her opinion, people naturally know what civility is when they experience it, but they experience it so infrequently that they forget how uplifting it is, and they are therefore less likely to initiate moments of civility with others. She references internet media and the use of smartphones as contributing factors to divisiveness. When people interact in person, there are moments of hesitation. When they interact online, even through email, the distance emboldens them and they're more likely to be rude.

Having aired in December 2014, the program’s political reference was not to the comportment of the current president of the United States, Donald Trump, but to an outburst ("you lie!") by a Republican representative from South Carolina, Joe Wilson, during former President Barack Obama’s 2009 speech to a joint session of Congress. Representative Wilson was booed, and members of both parties denounced his actions. He soon apologized for his “lack of civility.”

As you consider the WGBH discussion, I would suggest that you also consider the framework of the central argument.

When we talk about losing our sense of civility, and we use words like “become” and “no longer,” we are arguing that we were once civil and are now less so. But over what period of time are we saying this occurred? There are many who view the 2016 election as the turning point, but how then could we explain Wilson’s behavior?

What cultural values do we control for when we go back in time, looking for the point that this all began? Who was acting in the more civil manner during the Civil Rights Movement: the protesters who challenged the status quo by breaking the law, or those who upheld the law that denied minorities the right to be free and equal? If “verbiage has become more nasty, music has become more raw, and TV has become more explicit, and many of our politicians no longer treat each other with respect,” what do we make of the “melee” on the House floor in 1858? The actions and depictions of the suffragettes? The Vietnam War? The Stonewall Riots?

Do you think that Americans have become less civil? If so, when did it begin?

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