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Whenever I take a business trip, it also gives me the opportunity to cover a wealth of issues in my mind.

As I drove to Kansas City, Missouri, I was thinking about an article that I had read in the Sunday paper.

In the article, the author attempted to identify where we lost civility and an unwillingness to compromise in our political system.

He cited the usual suspects-social media, websites, blogs, talk radio-and offered nothing new.

I can easily understand the premise of the article, but I think that a lack of civility goes well beyond politics.

Anyone who has been in the fire service since the dot com explosion can remember some of the websites’ discussion forums that quickly erupted into bashing and name-calling. At one particular fire website; many of us refer to those years as the “Flame Wars”. It was all made easy because participants could do it anonymously and without fear of revealing their real identities.

Fortunately, we don’t have that problem at www.fireengineering.com, where everyone must use their real names. It creates an environment that puts a discussion or a stated opinion-however poignant-on a more civil and respectful level.

When you think about how we used to settle our differences, in today’s culture; there is a lot more mental anguish than physical pain. Years ago, if our disagreements didn’t escalate into a fistfight, you could at least talk it out eyeball-to-eyeball; my preferred method for ending a dispute. You see; even back then, I could reason with the bullies.

I don’t know exactly when, after Man evolved from grunts to spoken words, when it was that we realized how powerful words could be and how much they could hurt, but if our country’s divorce rate is any indication, our society has become very prolific at it.

It is no longer the dreaded “dear john” letter, but rather a very public break up on Facebook.

My thoughts took me back to a time when kids had no choice but to follow family rules, respect the word of their parents or suffer dire consequences. Tough love; you know?

This trip took me through a part of Iowa where my parents and their families grew up. As a kid, we made many trips to Osceola, Iowa to visit with relatives.

It had me thinking about the four hour ride in our station wagon and what we did to occupy our time. That led me to explore the interaction that took place in the car and how little things had to amuse us. I believe that the time spent on those long trips strengthened our family unit. If one of us did something that did NOT amuse, it would have the offender sitting in the front seat between Mom and Dad. Ugh!

With eight of us in the car, we had to be civil to each other and respect each other’s “space”. I am sure that many other families were very similar, so it is my opinion that civility began with the family unit.

That respect for authority in the home extended to the older adults, the schools and the law.

Helping the elderly to cross the street was cool; getting sent to the principal’s office was avoided at all costs and violating the law would have your parents comparing you to John Dillinger; public enemy number one during the Great Depression (some may have to Google to get the reference).

My generation also remembers the uniquely elevated status that was afforded to coaches. There was no such thing as a coach being too tough on a kid and parents intervening on behalf of their kid were non-existent. There was a code that said that the coach was always right and you NEVER questioned a coach’s decision in regards to you. Like it or not, you had to respect it. It was not an option!

Sound familiar?

It should!

I came up in the fire service at a time when we did what our instructors told us to do. We learned very quickly that questioning the instructor was not the same as asking questions. The smart ones knew it. Questioning the “whys” had its consequences. We didn’t have time to break into focus groups to discuss our feelings. You were told how to do it, shown how to do it and then, you DID it!

Subtle peer pressure mixed with a large dose of respect for the senior instructors and your team guaranteed that you wouldn’t even think about bugging out. And you learned to laugh even though you were the butt of the joke.

Time to get back on point!

Politics is just another segment in our society where civility and compromise generally implodes.

It hasn’t cornered the market on incivility. It permeates throughout every fiber of our society; from day-care to Medicare, you will have your “could care less” about civility.

One of those defining moments where I thought that civility had completely left our country was watching the film footage of our returning Vietnam War veterans. I remember seeing them cursed at, spat on and denied their rightful place in our society. Post war care was scarce.

Yeah; there was plenty of incivility shown to our Vietnam vets. I mean; it was bad enough that they fought in a country where they weren’t sure who the enemy was, but then they returned home and were treated like THEY were the enemy.

So, I think that this current round of incivility in this country had early roots and has grown over the years. I don’t wish to cite earlier examples, because I wasn’t old enough to appreciate (?) their significance. Those older than me might say that the pre-Civil Rights years found a bounty of incivility in America.

Why, just today, as I was sitting at Ma and Pa’s Kettle in Cameron, Missouri, I was thinking about all of the uproar over the comments made by Hank Williams, Jr. on ESPN yesterday and I jotted some notes.

Though his comments are the latest example of incivility, his remarks were also taken out of context, in my opinion.

First, he compared President Obama and Speaker of the House Boehner playing golf to a meeting between Hitler and Netanyahu. He also referred to the party in power as “the enemy”.

To be clear, he did NOT call the President “Hitler”. He was using an outrageously, hypothetical analogy to describe the magnitude of the differences between President Obama and Republicans. It was very uncivil of Hank Jr. to mention ANYONE in the same breath as the world’s most prolific genocidal maniac.

What I find offensive is that the Media is speculating that Hank Jr. was “under the influence”.

Nope; I think Jr. was under the misguided notion that his words were relevant to the political landscape; that his “celebrity” somehow commands attention.

Ironically, it DID get the attention of the ESPN bosses, who pulled Hank’s famously popular promo for Monday Night Football. I guess we live in a country where saying something that’s absurd can get you fired. I think ABC/ESPN were cowards for ending Hank’s gig; believing that they were doing “damage control”. What I am hearing on talk radio is that there are more people upset with Hank’s firing than are upset with what he said, but still, my advice to Hank Williams, Jr. would be to shut up and sing!

But, alas; this is the world we live in today.

Henry David Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience” oh, so many years ago. I don’t think that he realized when he wrote it how timeless its pronouncements would be. It was on the required reading list for one of my early political science classes. I remember that he said, Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?

I believe that civility and respect are so closely aligned that you really can’t have one without the other, because; if you are respectful, you are being civil and if you are civil, you are being respectful.

Here’s hoping that the fire service can raise the quality of the debate and be the shining beacon for civility in all that they do.

TCSS.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author, Art Goodrich, who also writes under the name ChiefReason.  They do not reflect the views and opinions of www.fireengineering.com, Fire Engineering Magazine, PennWell Corporation or his dog, Chopper. Articles written by the author are protected by federal copyright and cannot be reproduced in any form.

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Comment by Art "Chief Reason" Goodrich on October 5, 2011 at 8:22pm

Bobby:

Clearly, you have given much thought and have worked hard to build your belief sytem.

Today, in our "mile a minute" society, many people won't take the the time to think about what they hear or read.

Instead, they react emotionally and won't weigh what they say before they say it. And it will often cause an uncivil reply.

I wish it were more of an "agree to disagree" framework. Unfortunately, many want to take the "I'm right; you're wrong; therefore, I don't like you" and will say something inflammatory.

I have had my moments with incivility, but I try very hard to look at things pragmatically.

At least, I try.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Comment by Bobby Halton on October 5, 2011 at 9:10am

Art, I always find it interesting when we expect politicians to be civil, the history of politics since it very beginnings has been anything but. Our nation since its beginnings is no different, I would point to the intense and cruel words between Adams and Jefferson where Adams went so far as to say if Jefferson was elected he would rape the opposition wives and daughters or Washington’s incredible attacks from the Aurora editor Benny Banche.  

I would guess we are at the most “civil” point ever in political discourse, however political correctness sometime precludes folks from just saying what is on their minds. We all have opinions views, values and principles our dialogue should reflect those and not be constrained by what someone or some group feels is right or proper. Basically free speech should be free as long as it is not inciting violence.  

I would site the abortion issue as a key example of how we are constrained in our dialogue as a Catholic I am absolutely pro-life I feel abortion is an act of infanticide, which was common in Rome and Greece during their respective times as world leaders. The common practice of infanticide was ended with the rise of Christianity. But today we call abortion pro-choice or reproductive rights and we are expected to put it aside when viewing potential candidates for office.

I choose not to do so when evaluating who will get my vote values and principles matter. I will not vote for a pro-choice candidate, it offends my values and principles I will vote against them and encourage others to vote against them on principle as well. It does not mean I think they are bad people I means I feel they do not value life as I do and therefore do not share my values, simple as that.

Where we get into trouble these days is with metaphors, comparing this to that, as Hank did. There are certain folks who we should never compare anyone to they are simply to awful on their own, Hitler, Che, Mao for example brutal racist murders. The media has it’s own difficulties as is not reflective of our center right nation and therefore routinely overreacts to missteps by right leaning figures while ignoring missteps by left leaning figures.

The fire service should never follow the political model of discourse it is by definition a zero sum game. We should practice the art of rhetoric and debate where all opinions have merit, all voices have equal weight and everyone respects and defends the others rights to express themselves and share their views. We can agree to disagree, we can learn from one another, we can laugh and joke about our own weakness and foibles and share those without fear of vilification and ridicule.    

The modern Saul Alinsky methodology of isolating vilifying and ridiculing the opposition, is politics at its very worst, the fire service would do well to avoid modeling this behavior at all costs. We should be those who travel the high road, the models of the angles of our better natures. Great post as always thanks for sharing again. Bobby

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