Incivility: Just Where Are We Headed?

by Curt Kovener

“For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.” Hosea 8:7
The prophet Hosea warned the people of his nation, Old Testament Israel, that their actions had consequences, consequences that would be much worse than they could possibly expect. Think wind blowing through the trees. Then think whirlwind another term for destructive tornado.
As our public discourse somehow manages to get worse and worse almost daily, one can’t help but wonder if a whirlwind is in the offing.
There are numerous examples of elected officials doing and saying things that are contrary to how many of us were brought up. But maybe that is how many of them were brought up. And in that case, we need to talk to their Mamas on why they didn’t wash their mouths out with soap… or at least report them and their actions to their old Scoutmasters.
In a civilized society like ours purports to be, can it get any worse? Unfortunately, history tells us it can. Look to the Roman Republic, that form of government our Founding Fathers were so fond of acclaiming as a paragon of civic virtue.
In the century running roughly from 150-50 B.C., that ancient republic staggered under assaults on its institutions and cultural mores. Operating under a set of formal and informal rules, Roman politics were constrained within a boundary of acceptable behavior. Just because a tactic was technically legal under the constitution did not make it suitable for use. Called the mos maiorum or “way of the elders,” it was a society-wide gentlemen’s agreement to keep civic affairs civil.
Until, that is, one young but ambitious politician didn’t get his way. He certainly considered himself an idealist wanting only to provide a practical solution to a real problem, but the methods he used were the equivalent of starting a small snowball rolling down a long, steep slope.
Each response and counter-response escalated the snowball’s path. Public theater was the handiest tool in the astute politician’s toolbox, with the public demonstrations degrading into uncontrollable mobs. The violence meter rose progressively higher until it was no longer containable. All a politician could do was to promise more and more to the voting public and try to direct the mob’s anger toward his opponents.
Boy Howdy, if that doesn’t sound like the 21st Century.
Violence, both the verbal and the physical kind, inevitably begets more violence. Rome’s beloved republic finally died a death of a thousand cuts to be replaced by what was nothing more than a military dictatorship, sometimes ruled by a benevolent despot but mostly not.
Is this America’s path? I hope not, but I am not so optimistic about our chances. As one who grew up in the 1950’s & 60’s, I fear for where our country is heading. We can’t look to Washington for the solution because it merely reflects what we are in our local communities.
And if the leadership in Washington acts that way, it should be okay for us in small communities to do the same whether in public or on Facebook or other social media. Thus we do our part to continue the snowball rolling down the hill.
U.S. Senator Ben Sasse, (R-Neb.), wrote a book entitled ‘Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal’. His solution is one of grassroots civility and rebuilding personal relations where we live and work. It sounds Pollyanna-ish but then my recollection is that the little girl proved right in the Disney movie.
So I’m rooting for Sasse’s prescription. The alternative is too depressing to entertain, especially for a hobby historian like me who reads too much about bad things that happened in the past and knows that those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it.
So how did things work out for the nation of Israel back in the 8th century B.C.? Not well at all. They’re not called the Ten Lost Tribes without reason.– – – –
Mark Franke, a former associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, contributed to this column.