Perhaps it was your mother or father, a great aunt or uncle, or your grandma or grandpa that outlined, modeled, and enforced a code of civility in your childhood. He or she made certain that you knew the line not to cross when interacting with others. Whether your words were in casual conversation, on the phone, or in a letter, you were held to a high standard for word choice and tone. Never say anything in a letter that you wouldn’t say in person. Look people in the eye when you are talking to them and vice versa. Treat people like you want to be treated. Look for the good in others. Slow to anger and slow to believe gossip. Watch your mouth. Those standards meant the difference between a person of good character or the lack thereof, good manners or none at all, and striving for behavior befitting a person of faith. So said Grandma.
Then you became an adult and childhood monitors for manners and speech became passé. You could do as you wish and endure an occasional twinge of guilt until even that small shame faded into the past. You had children and grandchildren. Sometimes words came out of your grandchildren’s mouths that resurrected those old twinges, but that’s the way things are these days, you told yourself. Then you got your hands on a computer, a cell phone, a tablet or an Ipad. Soon social media and messaging became part of your daily routine. It was odd at first, not engaging with people face to face, but what amazing advantages technology offered.
Information and communication were encapsulated in your pocket or your purse. Once you got the hang of it, there was nothing you couldn’t access beyond a keyboard and a click. You caught on to the acronyms your grandkids used and added a few here and there to your own messages. You still had a set of encyclopedias and a box of thank-you cards in your home, but really, why bother? Most assuredly, Grandma would be shocked at this impersonal era of technology, but its power and convenience were boundless.
Your initial expression of callous, overt incivility related to an online order dispute. You really let the customer service department have it with your response. After all, it could be that all their communications were computer generated. Then it was much easier to berate a local politician with a generous dose of four letter words that had crept into your casual vocabulary over the years. We don’t know the road that someone has traveled. Be kind.
More often than not, you passed along disrespectful and unsubstantiated accusations, news stories, jokes, dialogue, and comments on social media regarding political parties and elected officials of your opposing affiliation. Why not? What were the odds that you would ever actually meet them in person? The Internet gossip was probably true anyway. When you were dissatisfied with the attention your elderly mother’s needs were receiving from the nursing home, rather than sit down with the director for a civil discussion, you verbally assaulted them in an email using all capital letters to indicate tone and exclamation marks to make up for word choice. Your words are a mirror of your heart.
Those days of sitting at Grandpa’s knee and soaking in his wisdom about how to conduct yourself in order to set an example for others were history. Gone also were the chastisements when you should have said nothing at all if you didn’t have anything nice to say. Not that you shouldn’t speak up to right a wrong, Granny had cautioned, but do so with a civil tongue and a peaceful heart. Gossip and obscenities show a lazy lack of intelligence. Well, Granny didn’t have the Internet to hide behind.
Now we are the generation that our grandparents were back then but we are of a different ilk. Ours is a technological world in our family room, office, kitchen, car, as well as in our pocket or purse. But have we evolved beyond the habits that created “the greatest generation”? Do we have the time and motivation to facilitate learning at Grandma’s knee because it’s our knee now.
Ironically, knee replacement, also called arthroplasty, involves the partial or total substitution of your knee joint and kneecap with metal and plastic. What substitution for character instruction have we wrought today? Should it matter to us as Christians that technology has helped facilitate a code of incivility in America?
We criticize some young people for their crude music lyrics and lewd behavior. But is it a lack of discernment on their part or neglected guidance about respect for oneself and others on our part? Are they learning only from what they see and hear on their portable devices? We must make a conscious effort to teach respect. Incivility has become all too familiar and some of us have eroded into apathetic participants. We could very well be active carriers of the condition.
Who has these dear children at her knee? Did Grandma waste her breath? Let us hope not.
Sharon McAnear is the author of five novels in the Jemma Series and three books in the Stars in My Crown Series (OakTara). Sharon lives in Colorado, but she grew up in rural Texas in the fifties when cotton was King and small town drama was his Queen. Her periodically dramatic family gets together occasionally to consume mass quantities of food and laughter.