Civilityby Dr. Joseph Chuman -- Leader of the Bergen Ethical Society
Things have changed. Civility has taken another blow, and I don't like it. Mine are not the ravings of a supercilious conservative or moralistic doomsayer. I am a progressive, a Leader in the Ethical Culture Movement, for whom the struggle for social justice is a religious passion. Human right, freedom of conscience, racial harmony and the welfare of children have all been on my agenda. Only a small fraction of these efforts have landed on the barricades; dramatic displays of success have been relatively few. Dreams of victory are chastened by the enormity of the opposition and the paucity of resources.
I console myself with the understanding that this is the nature of the calling. Rewards often do not come from witnessing sweeping change, but from the quiet satisfaction that one has done the right thing and labored hard to make the world a better place, if only in small ways. For many activists at the grass roots, these have been enough to sustain and inspire.
Now we confront a new obstacle more recalcitrant than the rest. This time the frustration comes from within People who are invited to a meeting no longer feel it their obligation to respond. I call and they don't answer. I call and they don't answer. I call a second time and ditto, a long silence trailing off to infinity. Ironically this lapse is occurring in an age of phone mail and other devices designed to retrieve messages that would otherwise be lost.
Written correspondence is no better. Most likely it is tossed with the same abandon as supermarket flyers and car wash promos. Bewilderment. Frustration. Anger. I am caught between wanting my event to succeed and placing responsibility where it belongs. Often I succumb to the former. But when I go through the effort of a follow up call, am I offering a supportive and welcome reminder to a friend flooded by life's incessant demands?
Or am I simply a pest? Perhaps I am being condescending, treating an adult who should be responsible like a negligent child. Each call implicitly reminding him of such. I grow insecure. A mild sense of shame comes over me as circumstances induce me to feel like an aggressor intruding on the busy lives of my hapless victims.
Unlike even the recent past, the obligation to respond is no longer upon the recipient. It is now doubly placed on the person extending the invitation. This problem is not limited to the field of volunteer activism. Wedding planners report that significant numbers of wedding invitees no longer bother to notify the couples of their intentions.
The coup de grace occurred a few months ago. I chaired a dinner committee to promote a path breaking, multicultural summer camp for high school students in my area. Under the auspices of a larger university, we sent out hundreds of invitations, may to public school administrators. We sensed the importance of our project in this time of strained race relations, and wanted support of school personnel to strengthen and expand the project. We planned for one hundred guests. This was not to be a snack of tuna sandwich and potato chips. The dinner was a multi-course, sit-down affair with a guest speaker and opportunities for networking. It was entirely free to our guests, and our carefully framed invitations made that clear. By the night of the event, after follow-up with those who initially failed to RSVP everything was in place. Our vaulting expectations took a blow when eight guests called only hours before the event to voice their regrets, and 22 who previously committed themselves neither came nor called! Last minute efforts to deliver the food to a homeless shelter failed, and hundreds of dollars in dinner went totally wasted.
It is easy to provide explanations as to why people refrain from the simple act of picking up the phone. We are all numbed into by the daily bombardment of junk mail and unwarranted telephone solicitations. Demands of work and family leave many people without needed leisure. We're often edgy and on the brink, and so the commitment to respond is attenuated or abandoned.
More is at risk than etiquette. The issue is weightier than the bruises inflicted in the microcosms of everyday relations. The social compact is at stake. Society is held together by the assumption of responsiveness. I say good morning to you and you respond with a good morning of your own. Hello.Ó Good-bye.Ó You ask me a question and feel compelled to answer. Such reciprocity is the implied anthropological dynamic on which we all depend for a meaningful and productive social life. When calls go unanswered and the loop remains open we are headed for greater isolation and social breakdown. True, we are pulled and tugged by the merciless demands which modern life forces us to endure. But if we no longer are able to discriminate between an unsolicited, impersonal call and a plea from a friend who will feel the pain of our negligence, then something precious has been lost.
I was inspired years ago by a friend who was then executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New Jersey. His job was demanding and his work day intense. I commented to him once how refreshing it was that he responded to telephone messages I had left with promptness. I shouldn't have been surprised, for as he told me his policy was to answer every incoming call within 24 hours.
It was a standard I found admirable not only for its efficiency but for the respect it conveyed to those who depended on his services. Likewise I remember the late Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick remarking that she personally read every piece of constituent mail, but paid special attention to those letters written by hand. Though I didn't always affirm her politics, that simple gesture conveyed a sense of decency which is dangerously slipping away.
E. ACTION REPORTS | DIALOGUE | SEARCH | LIBRARY HOME | AEU HOME | CONTACT US | ADMIN LOGIN