Beth Alston: Is civility dead in our society?

Published 4:41 pm Monday, June 4, 2018

While having a recent conversation with a professional contact, who has also grown to be a person I trust beyond measure, he posed a very interesting and provocative question: is civility dead in our society?
We bemoaned the fact that legions of people nowadays walk around literally filled with a simmering rage, just looking for an opportunity to take some slight offense so they can unleash it on some unwitting victim.
There’s not a human among us who doesn’t have some sort of problem they’re struggling with or an inner demon or frustration with something in their own life. But I look at it this way: your problems and frustrations are not my problems and frustrations because I have my own load of stressors in my life to handle. You don’t have to be indifferent, but you can elect not to engage with people about to boil over.
So, this leads to another question: why has our society lowered our standard for basic, decent behavior and accepted the unbridled, hooligan behavior that many embrace as the norm these days? Is that we can’t teach those who do not choose to behave? Could it be that we just silently walk away and pray that law enforcement will deal with the unacceptable behaviors? Or have we just simply given up? Forgive and forget? Don’t care? Which is it?
I shared on social medial earlier this year a little scenario about being in the drive-thru at McDonald’s one morning when the young woman in the car behind me apparently took offense when I pulled through in front her. There are two lanes for ordering and if customers take turns ordering and pulling through, it keeps everything in order and avoids inaccurate orders, etc.
But this young woman was loaded for bear. She pulled up almost on top of my car. She leaned her head out and yelled, “If you’d get outta that car, I’d beat your white a&&!” I was shocked. Neither one of us was inconvenienced because I pulled through first. I believe this woman was so angry with something in her own little world that she awakened enraged and made the conscious choice to carry an 18-wheel battery-sized chip on her shoulder until she could unleash her bile on someone else. I just happened to be the one.
We learn of it on the news reports every day: incidents of road rage, arguments over video games and/or cellphones ending in fatal shootings, spawned lovers going into businesses and shooting up the place and killing their former object of affection. There seems to be no thought of trying to deal with personal problems within themselves; it’s easier to just lash out at someone else. After all, counseling takes time and is hard work, so why not just act out? But what does it accomplish rather than to create further alienation from others?
I went into Dollar General on the afternoon of the day I learned that my mother had died in her sleep. I had worked that day to get the newspaper to bed, and thankfully remembered I needed to pick up cat food on my way home. There was a woman, I think, standing at the register. She was not in my path. I walked behind her and continued down the aisle. She yelled out, “well, excuse me!” I turned with a questioning face and if looks could kill, I would have dead, too. She continued, “if you just said ‘excuse me,’ I woulda moved, but no, you couldn’t even say it!” I just threw up my hands and turned around, not wishing to engage with someone so disturbed, especially in my own emotional condition. I continued to get the cat food, paid and left the store.
We see things like that almost every day, everywhere. But the most recent event takes the cake and left me flummoxed.
At a recent event hosted by the Georgia DOT so citizens could review the proposal for replacing the South Lee Street Bridge at its current height and with the historical features, I saw lots of people I know. One woman, a doyenne of local society, was engaged in conversation with someone else so I waved at her across the room. Later, as I was interviewing a DOT guy, this same woman came up and stood very close to us and listened, which is fine. DOT guy and I concluded our business; I thanked him and walked away to speak to others I know. That’s when the woman grabbed my arm with her cold, claw-like hand and pulled me back to DOT guy and started telling him her ideas about the project.
I was still in a state of shock that this so-called gentlewoman had actually laid her hands on me. Then I thought, “why am I standing here listening to this?” so I excused myself and walked away.
The actions of this woman still appall me. She put herself into the same category as the other two women mentioned above. The bruise she left on my arm lasted for a full week. I should have called 911 when it happened, but you know what they say about hindsight.
Driving home that day, I remembered what my dear, sweet mother told me as a child. When someone is rude to you, don’t retaliate. Smile, if you can, and excuse yourself. We should feel sorry for rude people because apparently, they were not raised in an environment where they were taught how to behave. Good advice. Then a redbird flew across the street in front of my car. That’s when I was certain my mother was telling me to let it go, not to harbor ill feelings toward the woman but to pity her. So that’s what I’ve done. I’ve run into her twice since without interaction. Perhaps she’s ashamed.
If people we consider well-mannered can behave like that, then what can we possibly expect from people who were taught nothing about how to interact with others and have no concept of human decency, decorum or even the Golden Rule?
Perhaps civility is dead in our society, but I, along with others, believe there is some hope. We will continue to conduct ourselves accordingly, and maybe, just maybe, people will stop to think before acting, or acting out.

Beth Alston is publisher and editor of the Americus Times-Recorder, and Americus magazine, and president of Americus News Media LLC. Contact her at or 229-924-2751, ext. 1004.