Sunday, January 01, 2006

"A Few Tips on Restoring Civility"

[This was published in The Rocky Mountain News in August of 2005.]

A lot of people in America are ticked off. We are frustrated, bugged, and hassled for myriad reasons. Much of our discontent has plagued humanity almost from the beginning. But much of our contemporary agitation stems from technologies that corrode common decency and invite incivility. While humans cannot delete death or abolish taxes, we can recover some civility by disciplining our technologies. The following recommendations won’t shake the world, but they might make life more civil and less agitating. The motivation is simply the Golden Rule, as articulated by Jesus: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Noise. Americans are awash in unwanted noise. Much of this is beyond our control, but some is not. When unwanted decibels rise, our hearts pounds and our heads hurt. We may even become ill. (The American military blasts heavy metal music into enemy territory in order to disorientate before attacking.) Unwelcome and unavoidable music from other automobiles accosts us at stoplights and in parking lots. Subwoofers assail us while in our homes and cars, and while on walks. Cell phone yelling invades our consciousness just about everywhere, including on bike trails and in bathrooms. Cell phone rings (with their annoying customized ring tones) resonate everywhere: at concerts, church services, funerals, and in classrooms.

Still, noise can be controlled. When playing music in the car, one can turn down the volume and/or close the windows when in earshot of others. Subwoofers, however, are another story. Rendering them civil is on the order of making Attila the Hun a pacifist. Subwoofers embody incivility. Perhaps legal restrictions are the only hope. Nevertheless, subwoofer users could moderate the roar when they come in range of others. Cell phone users could refrain from calls when they are interacting with others face-to-face and not broadcast their comments to everyone in range. (I once heard a woman on a cell phone loudly discussing her grieving process while she bought books at The Tattered Cover.) Ringers can be turned off or put on throb when they would disturb others. After all, we once lived without them.

Speed. Americans are always in a hurry—and often for no reason. “Time is money,” said Ben Franklin. So we rush about all the time—at work and at play—frightened of losing any time. Other cars drive too slowly. Checkers are too leisurely, talking to customers! Even the automatic checkers (with their annoying robotic “voices”) are not efficient enough for us.
Since most moral philosophers consider patience a virtue, we might try practicing it for a change. Surely one can wait a few seconds without losing a fortune or having a conniption. What if the person ahead of you says a few personal words to the checker? Maybe the checker needs encouragement. If the driver ahead has a pathological disorder that doesn’t allow her to break the speed limit, you don’t have to flash your lights, honk, tailgate, or make obscene gestures. You might try out the pathology yourself and observe life at a legal speed. Or (more likely) you can pass in due time and take your chances with the law. Perhaps the snail-paced driver is at an age where driving any faster would endanger everyone.

Television: Television is the great dynamo of incivility. It destroys conversations by bombarding us with distracting images and sounds. And TV is nearly omnipresent, showing up in restaurants and even emergency rooms—places where unmediated conversations were once considered a priority.

What to do? Turn off as many TVs as possible and see what happens. When associating with others, don’t depend on the TV for stimulation. (What’s on TV is usually pretty uncivil anyway.) Instead, enter into the lost art of conversation that honors the thoughts and feelings of others. Eat at restaurants with no TVs. Purchase a TV-B-Gone, a universal remote control that turns off many TVs. I once zapped nine public and unneeded screens in one triumphant weekend. Some civility was restored, and the beast, while not disarmed, was incapacitated for a season. By the way, there are far better sources for find out what is going on in the world than TV, such as magazines, newspapers, and the Internet.

This only scratches the surface of civility. But think on this. If you apply the Golden Rule to matters of noise, speed, and television, your life and the lives of those around will surely change—and change for the better.

· Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of Truth Decay.


Ben said...

Amen! :) I wholeheartedly agree.

dave and amy terpstra said...


Nine televisions in one weekend! You're my hero! Wouldn't it be fun to create a website to record the televisions people have turned off along with the stories included in turning them off. Perhaps if we add competition and "celebrity" more people will participate.

Bill said...


I totally disagree with your assertions on TV. For a future post, would you please consider expanding on your TV thesis and supporting the argument on how it is so uncivil?

Happy New Year!

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Is Bill serious? He may be, judging from what I saw of his blog... Anyway, I suggest that you read "Amusing Ourselves to Death" by Neil Postman for an insightful analysis of how television debases civil discourse. Simply having it crammed into your face in almost every public place is uncivil enough, though.

DanO said...

Dr. Groothuis,

I am a fan of Neil Postman's books and have not watched television for a few years now. However, I'm curious as to what you think about the media of computers and the internet. Obviously there is no one-to-one correlation between tv and the internet but I'm wondering if those who send email viruses be compared to tv zappers. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts.



Bill said...

I was hoping to get your opinions on why you feel TV is so uncivil - isn't that the point of a blog? - not a recommendation to read someone else's. I fail to see the direct, logical correlation between television and civil discourse. Obviously, "having it crammed in our face" isn't the only reason you feel the way you do.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


I hate to do this but...I have written a book on what I think of the Internet. It is called "The Soul in Cyberspace." It was originally published in 1997 (before any Christians were at all critical of the net). It is available as a reprint. You can find articles on this theme on my web page also:

The book sold very poorly and was generally panned because I was viewed as naysayer, curmudgeon, etc. In 2002, Quentin Smith published a book call "Habits of the High-Tech Heart" on the same subject saying many of the same things and was widely praised (even by me!) Selah.

Come Fail Away said...

There's a new model of TV-B-Gone out there. This time it's on a keychain! Just don't tell anyone I told you about it...