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Agreeing to Disagree - North Adams Public Library

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In the second part of our dive into civility, WAMC’s Berkshire Bureau Chief Jim Levulis asked people at the North Adams Public Library how they see civility in their world.

The round of questions started with how people define civility. Jordan Smith says there are many different levels, but manners stuck out in his mind.

“The keys to the kingdom as I call them; ‘yes, please, thank you, may I,’” said Smith.

Donna Hartlage says there is a universal definition.

“If you see a person in need that you reach out and help them” Hartlage said. “You don’t need to know who they are or what their circumstance is. But, the expectation is that we care about one another and that it is civil to intercede on someone’s behalf if they are in need.”

Others like Art Kittler couldn’t nail down an exact definition, but grasp its meaning.

“I try to be that kind of person,” Kittler said. “I try to be civil and so on. So I mean I understand the concept of it, but it’s kind of a tough one.”

When asked if there was incivility among politicians, people overwhelmingly said yes, mixed in with disbelief that there might be people who think otherwise. Hartlage, an educator for 26 years, offered up politics as an example before the topic came up.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we are less civil as a society,” Hartlage said. “Whether it’s as we watch politicians during an election attack one another and feel that that’s an all right thing to do; to attack a person’s reputation and character.”

Melody Fisher says civility means getting along without being interested in another’s opinion. She says the established American political system creates an environment of conflict.

“It’s each side looking to score points off of any little thing or cause obstruction just for the sake of doing so,” Fisher said. “It’s really kind of a messed up way of doing government and frustrating I think. It’s frustrating that the goal becomes staying in power, getting reelected, making the other guy look bad, as opposed to governing.”

Hartlage says the incivility has infected government from the local to the national levels.

“They have forgotten what they’re there for,” Hartlage said. “They have forgotten that they represent the public. It’s more about who can win and the loser is the country really.”

Jason Kokoszka says the public gives politicians the incentive to engage in conflict.

“I don’t think that our politicians would engage in that behavior if our citizens didn’t respond to that,” Kokoszka said. “If it didn’t hold something for the public, why else would it happen.  I don’t think that that behavior would be popular the way that it is, but that’s the kind of society we have. That’s what people enjoy.”

Kittler, a high school custodian who used to work in the newspaper business, says even when civility seems to ring true among politicians, it’s not sincere.

“They can be civil to each other, but I think that’s a veneer,” Kittler said. “I think they do it because we expect them to be civil when in real life they’d probably like to stab each other in the throat with a fork.”

Library patrons were also asked whether society as a whole is becoming more or less civil. Kittler, who is 68, says it’s diminished.  

“I don’t know if it’s changed, but there’s not as much of it as there was,” he said. “I don’t know if we are as civil to each other as we used to be. I don’t even know if we interact with each other as we used to whether are not we know each other or whether we’re strangers. I think at one time there was more civility. We would greet people on the street that we didn’t know; we would help people out, which is a very civil thing to do. I don’t think that’s so much a part of our society anymore.”

At 35, Kokoszka says technology may be to blame.

“We don’t have to interact in person as much as we used to,” Kokoszka said. “There are so many things that are automated now here and there. I think I’ve seen firsthand the erosion of social skills in people as a result of that. Of course that would affect how civil people can be and how manners might be present in society today.”

Division may not be restricted to the Congressional aisle. Fisher, a 34-year-old psychology graduate student, says people stick by those they relate to.

“We kind of offer immediate civility to someone who we perceive as being similar to us,” Fisher said. “But if not, then they don’t get the benefit of the doubt. Or maybe civility but nothing beyond that.”

Having lived in New York City, Boston and now North Adams, Fisher says civility may be more abundant in small towns than in cities, where people might be less likely to help someone in need.

“They just kind of walk by that sort of stuff,” she said. “I don’t think it’s because they are bad people, I think there’s just too much going on and if you stopped for everything it would be too much. So I think there’s a reason behind it. It’s not that people are bad, but it can feel a little bit cold and a little bit lonely and maybe not so civil when you’re there. At least it did to me some times.”

Smith says society is eroding and entering a dark age. He points to the end of corporal punishment in schools leading to a loss of respect for authority, therefore creating a lack of civility.

“You never had that kind of wildness and disrespect toward teachers, parents or elders before then,” Smith said. “You didn’t need to have metal detectors on your school doors before.”

So what can be done to keep civility from slipping out of sight? Kittler questions whether anyone actually wants to work hard enough to change the trend, himself included. He says putting on a façade to avoid a fight may be a first step.

“Sometimes phony gets you through the day and it avoids conflict,” Kittler said. “Sometimes conflict is good, but most times if you just try to be understanding, be civil to someone, let them be civil to you, whatever conflicts you have in the of your back of mind or conflicts that may boil to the surface, you avoid them simply by being nice to each other and accepting each other.”

Hartlage, who at age 66 runs a senior center in Florida, Massachusetts, believes to reverse the trend, America will have to become a godly nation, with Americans rededicating themselves to Christian-based morals. This is how she answered when asked if she had any questions for a scholar of civility.

“What is the common denominator that you have found works for people to be truly civil with one another and what do we need as a society to bring civility back?” said Hartlage.

Smith, 49 and speaking from his wheelchair, looks to the scholars for answers.

“Develop or theorize on how to reverse the trend,” Smith said. “Nip it in the bud so to speak and would they be able to do that?”

Fisher wonders if her theory about civility as it relates to one’s own situation would hold true.

“I think it’s just easier to have civility, to have energy and time to connect with other people in a civil way if you’re not anxious and worried about your own situation,” Fisher said. “So I’d be curious if that were true, but my guess is that it is.”

And Kittler wonders why someone would choose to be a civility scholar. 

“Of all the things someone is going to do with their life, study civility or be an expert on it, I don’t know?” Kittler said.  “But I’m going to be civil and say I respect them anyway.”

Hear WAMC's Paul Tuthill's story on civility in Springfield, Mass.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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