One of the central tenets of our organization since 1994 has been that national service and community volunteerism jointly provide the key foundation of public life rather than being merely a “nice” option. The churlish behavior of public commentators has increased our awareness of the extent to which civility in public life is also necessary rather than simply “nice.” Throughout history, the awareness, cooperation, courtesy and patience of the citizenry during the mundane activities of daily life might best be described as ordinary civility — in combination these practices form the very basis of our civil society. And history also shows that ordinary civility served as constant preparation for the behavior that would be necessary in an emergency.
We see this civic minded-attitude on clear display in archived news photographs — citizens by the thousands, standing calmly in long lines to wait for emergency survival supplies or for vaccinations. But as we continue to see in these days of road rage, ordinary civility, much less civility under stress, may no longer be a given.
Author Lynn Truss, in her book Talk to the Hand, observes: “The collapse of manners stands for a vast and under-acknowledged problem of social immorality. Manners are based on an ideal of empathy, of imagining the impact of one’s own actions on others. They involve doing something for the sake of other people that is not obligatory and attracts no reward. In the current climate of unrestrained solipsistic and aggressive self-interest, you can equate good manners not only with virtue but with positive heroism.”
What we can do in our daily roles as leaders of the national service movement is to recognize that service and volunteerism cannot exist in the absence of civility. We have an opportunity to combat what John Powers referred to in his book Sore Winners as the subdivision of Americans into warring interest groups, making us “a nastier, angrier, more fragmented society.” Ms. Truss gives us the best guidance on the simplest measure of how to re-capture the lost ground in the decline of our civil society. We should simply imagine the impact of our actions on others before proceeding. As citizens, as managers, as subordinates, as parents, as children — indeed in any role — that one simple thought process can do more to promote change than any other.
Arizona State Director for the Corporation for National and Community Service
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