Every Sunday afternoon, football fans will be ejected from stadiums nationwide for doing things we expect them to do: acting drunk, verbally harassing the other team and its fans, pouring beer over someone's head and calling him a "self-righteous Belichickian."
The National Football League released an official code of conduct for spectators last month. With it, the NFL seems to say, "Let's keep this civilized, you animals." Sip your beer, the NFL urges, but don't guzzle it. Cheer for your team, but don't curse. Instead of getting pulled into the rowdiness, send a text message to stadium security. They'll swoop in and defuse the situation, and you can remain anonymous.
Civility, historically celebrated in lofty axioms by noble peoples, has evolved over the past decade into a full-on movement of the masses. It's being trumpeted and incorporated by universities and private associations, by entire municipalities, by Internet users yearning for an online code of conduct and, yes, by a professional sports league that seems to exist solely to sell beer to adrenaline-pumped hotheads.
Tracts on manners have been written for hundreds of years. During his childhood schooling, George Washington, for example, transcribed the 16th century "Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation," which includes this:
Put not off your Cloths in the presence of Others, nor go out your Chamber half Drest.
We're no longer focused on how to formally address royalty (protocol) or which fork to use first (etiquette). Now we're simply lobbing official reminders at one another to keep things cool. We've evolved into a highly technical, accomplished, more egalitarian society over several millennia, but we still need encouragement to be kind and decent and deferential.
Does that mean we are any less civil today than in the past?
It's always risky to compare eras, cautions P.M. Forni, founder of the Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude. In certain ways we are more civil. In other ways, especially when it comes to traditional forms of deference, we are losing ground.
"An example I use often is that of a pregnant woman on a bus," Forni says. "Maybe there are fewer youngsters that give their seat on the bus to the pregnant woman today than there were generations ago. But when that woman steps into her workplace today, the number of men who consider her a professional and intellectual peer is higher than in my father's generation."
Alinda Lewris, volunteer executive director for the International Association of Protocol Consultants, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that has refocused its mission from promoting etiquette to promoting civility through educational partnerships and conferences, has interviewed chief executives of Fortune 500 companies to understand the impact of incivility in the workplace. Data from the past 10 years suggest that we think society is getting less civil, that workplace bullying is rising and that co-workers, for the first time, are the No. 1 cause of work-related stress.
Stress, in fact, is one of the four main causes of incivility, Forni has concluded. The others are time (hurried, disrespectful manners), self-interest (the preoccupied teenager not noticing the pregnant woman on the bus) and anonymity. The latter cause fuels a whole universe of incivility on the Internet.
Why? Frustration? To simply get attention or a reaction? Or because there are no real consequences online, where everyone surfs in relative anonymity? Half of Internet users want a universal voluntary code of conduct for bloggers and commentators, according to a poll released in May by DLA Piper, a global legal services organization. A third of bloggers want one; another third are opposed. But would a list of suggested rules do anything?
"I don't think it's a waste of time," says California blogger Gina Cooper, founder of the liberal bloggers' convention Netroots Nation. "I think it's important: Online, you build a community, and communities are built around common values." It's up to individuals to create and uphold codes of conduct in their own spheres of influence, she says.
As a result of her work in politics and on the Web, a stream of explicit and hateful messages has flowed to Cooper's inbox. Responding would only reward bad behavior, she says.
Cooper said she expects online anonymity to erode as we live our lives more and more online. This may lead to more self-restraint. Lewris envisions ever-increasing dialogues on civility. Forni would like to see civility become a concrete part of school. Regardless of these expectations, at least people are talking about it more today than in past generations. But are we really more likely to act civil if there are codes telling us to do so?
"It depends," Forni says. Codes "can have a backlash effect. We don't embrace codes very gleefully. What we do know is good manners and civility and politeness can be taught, especially to children, with very good effect. We know, for instance, that youngsters who have been trained in civility-based relational competence are less likely to become abusive and violent adults. . . .
"Civility, politeness and good manners are not trivial, because they do the everyday busywork of goodness."