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Why civility matters in the transition

A Review (of sorts) of ‘Talk to the Hand: the utterly bloody rudeness of everyday life (or six good reasons to stay home and bolt the door)’. Lynne Truss. Profile Books 2005.

It seems to me that the world is growing steadily ruder. As we grow more and more stressed and less connected to those around us, we increasingly, it seems, have less time for civility. A leaked government document reported today suggests that our current lurch into recession will generate crime, disorder and a plumetting of civility on an unprecedented scale. What I want to do here is to put in a word in defense of civility, and why I feel it is so important that we hold onto it in increasingly uncertain times.

What triggered my writing this piece was the ongoing debate, or spat, between my friend Graham Strouts of Zone5.org, and Alanna Moore, geomancer and dowser. The debate itself has been fascinating, raising important questions about science, pseudoscience, permaculture and the existence or otherwise of ten foot high trolls. It is a debate that has rolled along for months now in various threads, but the point at which I felt compelled to contribute was when Graham wrote the following, which followed Alanna saying that she was “too busy to be engaged in any argument on the subject, I have books to write and films to make, all of which aim to make people more sensitive to and caring for their environment”. Graham retorted;

Books to write and films to make! My goodness, aren’t you the busy bee? And all those conferences as well. Alanna, you must be such and important person! What a privilege to have such an auspicious person comment on my blog!! Maybe you’ll be in line for a Nobel prize sometime, do invite me to the ceremony.

In his ‘Short History of Rudeness’, Mark Caldwell wrote “manners are what is left when serious issues of human relations are removed from consideration, yet without manners, serious human relations are impossible”. Although this debate was passionate, heated and far-reaching, it felt to me at that stage that a line was crossed, and crossed unneccesarily. Civility broke down, respectfulness was abandoned.

While on holiday, I had some time to reacquaint myself with the world of television, something I usually steer well clear of. So much of it, in the vast morass of ‘reality TV’, is about engineering situations where people will be rude to each other. As Truss writes;

“Have you ever noticed how many role models there are in popular culture for rudeness, crassness, laddishness and nastiness? “Oh, Anne Robinson! She’s so rude!” “Oh, Jonathan Ross! He’s so rude!” “Oh, Graham Norton! He’s so rude! Count the roles models for respectfulness, on the other hand, and after a couple of hours you will have to admit there is only one: Babe. That’s it. Just one small sturdy imaginary sheep-pig stands between us and total moral decay”.

Seems to me like we live in a daily world where rudeness, to varying degrees, has become so commonplace that it no longer seems unusual. The need for communicating with politeness has never been greater. The core of ‘Talk to the Hand’ is Truss’s “Six Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door”. The first is “Was That so Hard to Say?” This explores how people have become less and less able to speak civilly to each other, to say simple things like please and thank you. It also refers to the apologies we enounter that really don’t actually mean it, like the “we’re sorry you are having to wait” messages in phone queuing, or the computerised “I am very sorry for the delay to this train” message I hear so often on stations. How can someone who doesn’t actually exist apologise to me in the first person, I am left wondering.

“Why am I doing this?” reflects the amount of times that ineptitude is put back to us as being our fault, we wait for 5 minutes in a queue on the phone, only to then be played a message asking “have you ever considered doing your banking online?” “Well, if you actually picked up the bloody phone I wouldn’t have to…”. The third is “My Bubble, My Rules”, which is about ‘personal space’, and the ease with which people violate it. Truss’s main gripe is mobile phones in public spaces, cold callers and email spam also feel her wrath. The thing I detest most is people playing music on their mobile phones on the train… haven’t they heard of headphones? (sorry, that’s my pet gripe out of the way now…).

Her fourth is “the Universal Eff-Off Reflex”, the increasing tendency when someone is pulled up aout something to give them a mouthful of abuse, or worse, such as the dreadful case of the woman in Sussex who was pushed onto the trainline the other week by two young lads when she reminded them that smoking on train stations is no longer allowed. Truss writes point out bad manners to anyone younger than 35, and you will risk a lash-backreflex response of shocking disproportion. “Excuse me, I think your child dropped this sweet wrapper”. “Why don’t you Eff Off you fat cow”. All to often, she writes, criticism is treated, and reacted to, as simple aggression.

Her fifth one is “Booing the Judge”, which is about the loss of deference and the loss of respect for figures of authority. Although here she veers somewhat into ‘Grumpy Old Men’ territory, she is right to highlight the spread of a general sense of disrespect, that anyone in a position of responsibility needs bringing down a peg or two. She gives the examples of judges on TV shows such as ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ who are booed and abused by the audience for stating the blindingly obvious… saying “look, I’m sorry, he can’t dance!”

Her final grumble is “Someone Else Will Clean It Up”. This is the loss of the sense that we have a relationship with a wider community than just ourselves and our friends. Why shouldn’t you just chuck rubbish out of the window of the car? Indeed, why shouldn’t you belch CO2 out in unhealthy amounts? Not my problem. Someone will, after all, clean it up. A walk around most city centres early on a Sunday morning highlights this… Like many things, I blame, as a child of the 80s, Thatcher, and her ‘there is no such thing as society’ statement, which turned out to be a prediction rather than a statement. Increasingly we are losing a sense that our actions, be it excessive noise, aggressive behaviour, creation of mess, or carbon emissions, impact on the environment we all have to inhabit.

I rarely engage with online chat forums (or fora, sorry… Truss’s previous book was ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ which extolled the virtues of grammar, she would recoil at my use of the word ‘forums’). As a medium, they are designed to maximise rudeness. If you wanted to debate an issue , you wouldn’t enter a darkened room to engage in thoughtful conversation with an unknown number of people with masks on. In the same way, being hidden behind ridiculous names like hotdog18 and vortexman seems to give people permission to be unspeakably rude to each other. Similarly, where I take exception with Graham’s treatment of Moore is that it is unneccesary. It adds nothing to the debate and discussion, but it leaves the quality of the debate greatly reduced.

So where do we go from here? Truss’s only attempt at a solution comes at the end of the book when she describes what she calls ‘a tiny flame of hope’. “Let’s try pretending to be polite, and see what happens”. The recent debate about the role coal may or may not play in our future, between Arthur Scargill and George Monbiot, was enlightening, passionate, informative and pulled no punches, but it actually never resorted to belittling, derision or name calling. I try (and probably fail), in my work spreading the Transition idea, to embody Truss’s principle of being polite where possible, and when not, at least pretending to be polite. Although she may hold some odd views, Moore is to be commended for remaining engaged with the debate. I enjoy debate and discussion, but once the abuse starts flying, really, I’ve got better things to be doing with my time.

In David Fleming’s seminal but as yet unpublished book ‘Lean Logic’, he sets out to define what he means by courtesy, something which he values highly and which he sums up as “the art of listening and reflection”, and his definition of which offers a useful checklist to keep in the back of the mind…. He states that courtesy requires;

…presence, listening, and particular courtesies such as not interrupting, not finishing the other person’s sentences, not quickly losing concentration while the other person is speaking, not hurrying the other person along with impatient listening-noises (”yes…yes…yes”), not abruptly changing the subject, not flatly and thoughtlessly contradicting, misconstruing or disagreeing as a matter or routine, not assuming the other person to be an idiot unless you have considered the evidence, not catching the other person out by taking issue with the loose expression that happens in everyday speech, not taking the other person’s observations as personal criticism, and not interpreting the other person in a different ‘colour’ from that which was intended - i.e. being able to recognise a joke as a joke, and urgency as demanding attention.

In our work spreading the Transition idea, working with local authorities, businesses and so on, maintaining civility and utilising David’s suggestions are key. In the fascinating ongoing Transition forum discussion about the Transition Network strategy document Nick Wilding recently wrote;

…my sense is that transition will continue to accelerate into mainstream consciousness and that the pace of uptake will be a key evolutionary stress on emerging structures. So it seems to me that beyond the structures, the key to the integrity of the process will remain held by the key advocates/emerging leadership (whether we like the word or no) of the movement and their capacity to embody, shaman-like, the core purpose and principles as this evolutionary ‘groove’ is laid down. The culture of these systems is to my mind as critical as the systems themselves…

I couldn’t put it any better. I tend to go with Henry James on this one. “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind”. While creative discussion and debate of ideas is clearly crucial to intellectual rigour and understanding, name-calling and personal attacks have no place. It is the way in which we communicate ideas and engage in debate that speak as much about us as the ideas themselves.

I’ll close with a short passage from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book ‘Being Peace’. He uses the example of Vietnamese boat people leaving Vietnam in small boats and often caught in dreadful storms in which people panicking can lead to the boats sinking. “But”, he writes, “if even one person aboard can remain calm, lucid, knowing what to do and what not to do, he or she can help the boat survive. His or her expression - face, voice - communicates clarity and calmness, and people have trust in that person. They will listen to what he or she says. One such person can save the lives of many”. In these unsettled times, I would argue that we need a great deal more such people in order to best serve a population stuck dazzled by the headlights of a Transition it barely understands.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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