The Science Of Civility While The Rest Of The World Bemoans How We've Lost Respect For One Another, A Johns Hopkins Professor Is Finding Out Whether We Actually Have.

January 05, 1998|By Richard O'Mara

Civilization is drowning in a sinkhole of personal rudeness, road rage and bratty kids with their hats on backward.


Well, maybe. At least a lot of people think that's what's happening. That's what the polls show, and have for some time now. It's evident in magazine and newspaper articles with headlines like this one: "The Coarsening of America." Or this: "Civility in Politics: Going, Going, Gone." Or this more plaintive query: "Whatever happened to manners?"

To get the answer to that question, maybe the thing to do is to ask a mannerly man. Someone like Pier Massimo Forni, a 47-year-old professor of Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University. Forni, from Treviso, near Venice, settled in this country in 1978. He has been an amiable Baltimorean since 1986.

Forni takes manners seriously. He studies them. It has been a preoccupation for about a decade, "a side field," he says through his soft accent. For the past five years he has been compiling an archive on the state of civility in American society, collecting articles like those listed above, and less reactive ones as well.

He teaches a course at Hopkins on civility and manners. His students read the poems of Homer to decipher the codes of courtesy among the ancient Greeks; they read Freud's "Civilization and its Discontents" and more modern studies like Erving Goffman's "Interaction Ritual."

They go into hospitals, and schools, and to prisons to learn what inmates know about courtesy, civility and etiquette. They come back impressed -- astounded, in some cases -- at how people in extreme situations such as the latter order their world.

Forni has discussed the issue with his colleagues. He and Professor Giulia Sissa, of the Hopkins' classics department, and a number of others have begun a systematic study of this state of affairs that has so many people alarmed. It is called the Hopkins Civility Project. Its aim? "To assess the relevance of notions of civility, politeness and manners in America today."

But Forni and his colleagues did not undertake this project in a spirit of expectant disaster, did not conclude beforehand, as the authors of so many other articles and reports seem to have done, that society is already too far gone for want of civility. Not yet.

Forni has a relevant experience to relate: "I was in New York a few months ago in a cab, and another car got close to my cab and my driver had to steer toward the curb to avoid a collision. He proceeded to spit through his window into the other cab."

Over the top even for a New York cabbie?

Yes, but does it, and countless other individual boorish acts and social atrocities one hears of from friends and neighbors, justify the kind of alarm that produced the articles above, and spawned all those panels and committees with harumphing names like the National Commission on Civic Renewal and the National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, et al.?

Are things that bad?

To this Forni replies with academic tentativeness.

"It depends," he says, "on what we are talking about."

He concedes that the kind of rudeness exhibited by the expectorating cabby has probably increased somewhat over the past 10 years. He ascribes it to an elevated level of stress and anonymity in modern life.

And he thinks that expressions of what he calls "extreme informality" are becoming more common: Students wear hats in class; they chew gum, put their feet on the furniture. Young people don't surrender bus seats to the elderly so automatically. People no longer dress for formal occasions; a golf shirt at a funeral does not turn heads.

"If you tend to value traditional forms of deference, then things are getting worse," Forni says.

Respect for the Earth

But, he adds -- and the but is a big one -- there are new forms emerging, new objects of respect. Manners, etiquette, the ideas of civility, are all changing and, here and there, for the better.

These days the student slurping Coke in the back seat won't go out after class and throw the can on the grass. He'll find a trash container. This reflects "a greater concern for the environment among the young," says Forni.

So what does that have to do with civility?

"Civility entails respect and consideration for other persons," Forni says. "It also entails taking an active interest in the well-being of the community. Also -- and this is new -- the definition has come to entail a concern for the health of the planet. Not just people, not just the community. The planet."

Many books on etiquette these days contain chapters on the environment or pay attention to it in other ways. "Judith Martin's new book ['Miss Manners Rescues Civilization,' 1996] is full of references to the environment," says Forni.

This relatively new component of civility reflects the immense growth of environmental consciousness of the past two decades. It is more evident in Europe, where the Green movement has been a powerful political force for many years, but it is developing here as well.

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