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A Lesson in Civility

September 14, 2009

Author: Terri Lee Freeman

Lately it seems as if the public discourse on healthcare reform has shown some of the absolute worst in us. Arguments, name calling, slandering and frankly, fear tactics have seemed to be the order of the day. It seems quite contrary to the topic at hand – healthcare. I can’t imagine that all that name calling and gun toting is good for your blood pressure… Anyway, what’s worried me most about this public display of the “ugly American” is the message it sends to our children. How do we teach our children to be good citizens, to listen to other points of view, to be accepting and tolerant of difference when what appears to be glorified by the media is the salaciousness of reality television and the recent town hall meetings?

Turning on the evening or morning news seemed to provide our youngsters with the image of adults who have less control over their tongues than adolescent girls quarrelling over adolescent boys! Absent a very active counterpoint from engaged and perceptive parents and caring adults, young people could walk away from these encounters, albeit brief, assuming this behavior is ok. Simply put, it’s not! While healthy debate is one of the values our country is founded on, there is never a place for blatant disrespect of people because of their differences…disagreement yes, disrespect no.

Regretfully, disrespect seems to abound in our modern day society. Take for example your commute to work. Need I say more? Or the far too frequent employee we encounter who is clearly unhappy with his or her job, the boss, or maybe with you! The rise of talk radio where people say just about anything, and the recent advent of reality television where people say and do just about anything has increased our tolerance for nonsense.

But, the “shout out” by South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson, during President Obama’s speech to the joint session of Congress took this conversation to a whole new level for me. It took me back to the outrageous behavior of a disgruntled Iraqi who decided he would throw his shoes at then-President George W. Bush. In the latter instance, security jumped into action to protect the president, as they should, but in the case of Rep. Wilson his peers immediately reprimanded him with their boos, and looks of disgust and disbelief. But more importantly, the President showed outstanding civility by not responding or retaliating, but continuing to fulfill his objective of giving a speech on healthcare reform. Oh, how I hope our children and young people were watching.

When I first came to The Community Foundation I was introduced to a donor who was funding a program focused on character education called Values First. I must admit that, at the time, I thought the idea of character education was something nice to do, but I was certain there were better issues to tackle with philanthropic funds. I don’t think I could have been more wrong — character counts! It becomes the foundation for effective civic engagement and the basis for a civil society. Character provides a vision of how we should relate to each other. There is scripture that states, “… where there is no vision the people perish.” Not that people die, but that they throw off all restraint. Have we reached that sad point in time? I hope not. I believe that the desire for a respectful, civil society exists within each of us. So, what are you willing to do to maintain that vision of society? The actions we model, including those of our chief statesmen and women, combined with nonprofit programs like Values First, will set the stage for future civic engagement by our young people. So let’s get with it and practice what we preach to our youngsters. They are watching our every move!

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