August 9, 2010

Civility and Flying

I went to Washington, DC, to serve on an all-day review for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in early August. The idea was to fly in one evening and fly out the next, given that DC in August is not really a comfortable time of year and I was about to go on vacation. Jim Leach, the director of the NEH, launched an initiative this year focusing on civility and democracy.  The previous head of NEH, Bruce Cole, conducted an interview with Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, on this very topic as well. It was published in Humanities in 2005.  President Barack Obama addressed the issue of civility and democracy in his May 2010 commencement address at the Univeristy of Michigan: “[T]he practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship.” I even got a little pin that says “Civility” on it, once I got to the NEH panel convening.

When my flight to DC was substantially delayed in Chicago, some people became quite uncivil. One man, who claimed to be a surgeon, had a really unpleasant meltdown. He harangued us all about his crucial engagement at National Institute of Health the next day and how he was going to sue American. Lots of very loud swearing, name-calling and sweaty, hostile body language. Remarkably unhealthy.

I had just finished the chapter in The Mangle in Practice: Science, Society and Becoming, about using verbal judo to diffuse hostile encounters, but I was too tired to even attempt something with this guy. The idea of verbal judo, according to George Thompson who developed it, is that one uses “the principle of judo itself, using the energy of others to master situations.” Verbal judo is “a set of communication principles and tactics that enable the user to generate cooperation and gain voluntary compliance in others under stressful conditions.” (Thompson and Jenkins 1993, 89) I must say, it sounds like it takes practice. But if we are to re-learn civility in stressful and varied situations, we will need early and frequent lessons about strategies like verbal judo. Civility in a multicultural democracy is not just going to happen; in that sense, I wish Mr. Leary’s initiative every success, in bridging cultures and instilling civility, provided civility means respectful striving for justice and patient negotiation of difference.