Civility starts at home, people

December 02, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

Now that they've started a civility campaign in Howard County, it would be nice - nice being a major element of civility - to bring it to the city of Baltimore. More than Columbia, more than Ellicott City, more than even the funky part of Laurel that's in Howard County, Baltimore could use a citywide bumper-sticker, lapel-button, billboard, classroom campaign to bring civility to its streets.

Instead of BELIEVE, it's time for BE CIVIL.

Or BELIEVE in CIVILITY.

Her inauguration is Tuesday, and that would be an appropriate time for Mayor Sheila "This-Is-A-Witch-Hunt/I-Am-Not-A-Witch" Dixon to launch the campaign. (And just to show her I'm all over this civility thing, I won't even mention Utech, Lipscomb or Doracon in today's column.)

There's still time to add a few lines to Dixon's inaugural speech: "Ladies and gentlemen, all of us must be more civil toward one another. We must be kinder and nicer. We must refrain from getting subpoenas and conducting upsetting raids of businesses that had ties to my sister and me. ..."

You know, that sort of thing needs to be expressed.

And it should come from the top and from the bottom. A civility effort needs to be official as well as grass-roots.

Inspired by the writings of P.M. Forni, the Johns Hopkins professor who wrote a book on the subject - with another coming in spring - the "Choose Civility" movement has taken hold in Howard County, supported by an array of local organizations. The campaign began last winter with a Forni talk at Howard Community College. Since then, thousands of green-and-white magnets bearing the words, "Choose Civility," have been distributed; they are everywhere.

The Howard County school system instituted a civility policy last year and printed thousands of civility bookmarks.

I'm told that public political discourse at the seat of government has been very civil of late - much more so than in the last pairing of County Council and executive.

"A veritable rediscovery of civility is going on at both the local and national levels," says Forni. "Communities such as Howard County; Cleveland Heights, Ohio; Duluth, Minnesota; and many others have launched civility-oriented initiatives to strengthen the bonds of civil society in their midst. ... I would love to see a citywide civility initiative in Baltimore."

What are we waiting for?

With Forni based here, Baltimore should be the most civilized city in the nation. Right now, of course, it's one of the most violent. So, I'll concede - there's a lot of room for improvement.

More civility, fewer homicides - makes sense to me.

Forni is co-author of a recent study that identified the 10 rudest behaviors in Baltimore. "The Terrible Ten," based on a survey of Baltimoreans, appears in the current online edition of Johns Hopkins Magazine. Here goes:

1. Discrimination in the workplace.

2. Dangerously erratic or aggressive driving .

3. Taking credit for someone else's work.

4. Treating service providers as inferiors.

5. Making jokes or remarks that mock someone's race, gender, age, disability, sexual preference or religion.

6. Aggressive or bullying children.

7. Littering.

8. Misuse of handicapped privileges.

9. Smoking in nonsmoking areas or near nonsmokers without permission.

10. Using cell phones in mid-conversation or during a meeting.

This wouldn't be my Top 10; they sound mostly like workplace grumbles. I don't discount them, but office gripes are only one aspect of this thing.

A Baltimore civility movement should have as its long-term goal a less violent, healthier, more family-friendly city. It needs to be street-level and aimed at adults. Most of the city's problems begin with how adults treat children.

Back in the summer, at a city park, I saw a boy hitting another boy, bullying him with profanities and making him cry. The two were maybe 12 years old. When I spoke up to stop the hitting, the bully came after me - first with a hard stare, then with a gesture and then with an aggressive movement meant to intimidate me. It didn't. But it made me sad. I saw clearly in this kid's eyes the long, dark walk to prison.

Children aren't born that way. They get that way, under the heavy influence of the toxic adults around them.

While civility needs to be taught to children, it needs first to reach adults.

So my list of 10 Rules for a More Civilized Baltimore goes like this:

1. Stop dropping the F-bomb all over the place, especially around children.

2. Stop beating your children.

3. Stop threatening to beat your children.

4. Make a fuss about your child's accomplishments in school.

5. Shut off the TV and read to your child. If you can't read, learn how.

6. Stop listening to loud, angry, profanity-laced music - at least around children.

7. Don't get high around your kids.

8. Don't litter - on your street or any street.

9. Be responsible.

10. Pull up your pants.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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