Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Lessons in Civility from Justin Bieber and Boston

Atticus Finch, in whose name this blog began, set the bar of civility very high. He soared over it effortlessly, and he tried to teach his children to do the same. Scout, as the novel begins, has a long way to go. Her first instinct is to settle matters by fighting, but Atticus insists that Scout learn to hold in. Jem has lessons to learn as well, especially after he retaliates against Mrs. Dubose’s racist taunts. Atticus condemns Jem to sit by the bed of the woman who disgusts him and read to her without rancor.

Atticus also teaches his children by example. He refuses to raise a hand or complaint against Bob Ewell after Bob spits in Atticus’s face. Recognizing that Bob is on the lowest rung of Maycomb’s ladder, impotent to change his circumstances or public opinion, Atticus turns the other cheek and grants the man his pathetic attempt to assert himself.

Such grace under pressure--such reserve--is admirable, and that is what the media has chosen to highlight in Boston--as they should. Reserve is crucial in a civil society. Reserve is what checks our baser instincts. We’ve even codified it in civil and criminal law. Reserve in discourse is civility itself, and it elevates public conversations to the level of ideas and goals rather than petty differences, sacred cows, and flawed judgments.

Civility also helps us hold our tongues against gossip. Civility is what should dictate our response to young Justin Bieber and his tweet about Anne Frank? Bieber my be an adult legally, but realistically, experientially, he’s a boy, just nineteen years old. He has not blossomed fully, and he certainly hasn’t bloomed. His sense of the world and his responsibilities in it are just beginning to bud. He may sing pretty well and possess some stage presence, but he has yet to face the blows that life delivers upon us all. The boy will become a man as he faces tests of character and challenges to his will. He will rise and fall, once, twice, again and again; he will triumph and fail many times. Let us hope he will grow to accomplish feats that amaze, but until he does, be tolerant of his youth; be civil. His na├»ve, self-serving Tweet is not fit subject matter for newsreaders; it’s just gossip, neither sufficiently evil nor even so shallow as to draw notice. Turn away. Be still. Be a First Responder, rendering aid rather than contributing to a rancorous discourse.

Perhaps if we could hold our tongues, gossip will fade in the political arena, but today, it’s alive and cutting into the marrow of our culture. In my birth state, Oklahoma, Tea-Party leader Al Gerhardt has been indicted for extorting State Senator Cliff Branan who refused to haul Tea-Party water. Gerhardt ordered State Senator Branan to “ Get that bill [in opposition to U.N. Agenda 21] heard or I will make sure you regret not doing it. I will make you the laughing stock of the Senate if I don't hear that this bill will be heard and passed. We will dig into your past, yoru [sic] family, your associates and once we start on you there will be no end to it. This is a promise.” Still, Senator Branan declined to surrender his conscience or his vote. Consequently, in an effort to sully or assassinate Branan’s character, Mr. Gerhardt breathed life into gossip. He accused the senator of being a philanderer .

Such toxic language, near and far, tears at us. Such language drives us apart and imprisons us in divided camps. We cannot, shall not, let it wound us; we cannot, shall not, let it escalate into bombs and bloodshed. We shall instead rise above, come together, help each other heal. We are the people whose names will not be attached to vitriolic radio programs and gossip networks disguised as fair and balanced.

We are the people who will help an injured runner to his feet, supporting him as he crosses the finish line, his legs still weak and shaky after the concussive blast. We are the people who sort through untold debris and human detritus, who clean the blood and sweep the streets. We do the unpleasant tasks and in doing them, we demonstrate grace and civility. We cherish order and will labor to restore it. We hug our children and make them safe. And we are the people who do not rush to judgment about the color of skin or nation of birth that produced the bomber. We remember to be circumspect about the stories we repeat.

Most important, we shirk from inflicting more harm. Disenchanted, misguided criminals lacking a moral compass will never destroy the innate goodness in the human species. They will instead find justice somewhere, one day. And youth still under construction, the Justin Biebers of the world, will mature. We can only hope that when they do, they will have learned something about perspective, that this world of human suffering is not a fit place to promote bebievers. Our own failures, losses, illnesses, and frailties teach us to think less of ourselves, and that’s a very good first lesson in civility