Md. Professor: Rebuilding Civility in Society Requires Small Steps

WASHINGTON — During and after a bruising presidential campaign, many have been bemoaning the coarsening of American culture. But it began well before Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton threw their hats into the ring, and Towson University English professor Andrew Reiner has been fighting for a more civil culture for years.

Reiner teaches a course titled “Mr. Rogers 101: Why Civility and Community Still Matter,” and on Thursday, he told WTOP “we’ve become a much more fissured and splintered society over the past 30 or 40 years.”

He said he first noticed something going on when he was on the roads in the area.

“I really started becoming aware of how dangerous it is driving on a lot of secondary roads, and especially on the Beltway and the highways in this area.”

Asked about the underlying causes, Reiner said the answer is “very complex. But I can tell you … we are definitely becoming a more narcissistic society. We become less accountable — especially to strangers.”

Toward that end, Reiner’s class includes assignments such as eating lunch or dinner with a complete stranger, and committing “conscious civil acts,” such as talking with someone who’s in obvious emotional distress.

Some students reported life-changing experiences, Reiner recently wrote in The Washington Post; others complained about “mandated volunteerism” and even considered the instruction a command to “be rude,” under the notion that “placing the sovereign rights of the individual above all else.” Later, he wrote, many of the resistant students admitted they were covering a fear of rejection.

That fear of rejection “never has to happen with our online lives,” Reiner told The New York Times, and he added to WTOP that with the rise of social media “it ratchets up the ability to be a lot less civil” thanks to the built-in anonymity. And it’s not getting better, he said, as “we’re tending to blur the lines between our offline and our online lives.”

Reiner said that the presidential campaign was an exhibit of the lack of civility in American society, and the election of Donald Trump won’t help.

“He has normalized, in a very short amount of time, a lot of the deeper impulses and feelings and opinions that a lot of people have been at least keeping at bay … with some degree of restraint.

“And his modeling of being the person in power who can basically disregard the filter because it’s viewed as a reaction to being politically correct … gives a lot of people the license to say ‘Well, hey — if this person I revere … is doing this, it’s license to do that myself.’”

What’s the solution? Reiner said it’s in the sort of little interactions that are included in his class.

“Small steps. Real efforts at doing a better job of re-engaging these filters that work really well for us in a democracy, and of just not looking at the other as people that are worthy of our contempt. Just making small, simple gestures as a way of extending ourselves.”

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