The Death of Civility

And the only commandment you need to remember

By Bill Thompson

It is with some sadness that I note the passing of what had become known as public civility. I don’t mean the social graces like table manners and that sort of thing. I mean the social actions and interactions we exhibit when we deal with each other.

Manners, the social graces, are important because they are a reflection of our attitude toward our fellow man. Civility is the attitude itself.

When I was growing up in the small-town rural South there were certain things I was taught about how to deal with people. Most of those guidelines had some basis in the Scriptures that we learned in Sunday School. I expect that’s where my parents got their guidelines and where their parents got theirs, and if it wasn’t Gospel when they got it, it became Gospel by the time they told it to me.

For example, there’s The Ten Commandments right off the bat. There are all your basic guidelines right there handed down by God himself to Moses — who will forever look like Charlton Heston to me. I know I should say that I remember getting my introduction to The Ten Commandments from a particular Sunday School teacher or preacher but, in all honesty, it was really Charlton Heston’s portrayal in the movie The Ten Commandments that sticks in my mind.

Anyway, after you get past some of the really strict “thou shalt not’s” like “Thou shalt not kill,” etc., it all boils down to treating everybody with the respect that you expect them to show you.

I always thought that if you met a funeral procession coming toward you on the highway, the respectful thing to do was pull over to the side until it passed. That’s not just good manners, that’s a sign of respect for the family of the deceased regardless of who is in the hearse. I don’t see that much anymore.

I always thought that children should never “talk back” to their parents, particularly in public. I heard a lady in the grocery store the other day tell her adolescent son to push the shopping cart for her. With a bunch of other folks standing within earshot, the boy told his mother to push it herself. If I had said something like that to my mother when I was that age (or even older), as soon as I could have picked myself up off the floor, my mama would have further humiliated me right there in front of all those people by giving me a proper spanking.

Despite growing up with some rough and tumble characters in the log-woods and sawmills as well as listening to the raucous and sometimes extremely colorful language of men plowing mules, I rarely, if ever, heard a man use foul language in front of a lady. Now, not only do I hear men talking like that with ladies present, but I hear the ladies talk back to them in the same manner.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of current political discourse, since one of Mama’s admonitions was to not say anything if you couldn’t say something nice.

There is a particular Southern phrase of instruction my mother used to use when my sister and I would leave the house. After restating the time we were supposed to be home, she would always say, “Y’all be sweet now, ya hear.” That phrase is the greatest instruction for civility ever uttered. It encompasses all The Ten Commandments and probably every statute in every law book ever written.

Given the fact that The Ten Commandments cannot be posted in a public building anymore, I think it would be extremely meaningful to have that most civil approbation written over the entry to every courthouse and legislative building: “To all who enter here. Y’all be civil now, ya hear.”

Bill Thompson is a regular Salt contributor. His newest novel, Chasing Jubal, a coming of age story in the 1950s Blue Ridge, is available where books are sold.

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