Law Professor Says Lack Of Holiday Spirit May Indicate Societal Decline
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — In modern society, incivility is everywhere – from our children’s classrooms to the recent presidential election to the mall parking lot full of end-of-the-year shoppers. In fact, this holiday season, many felt “Scrooges” and “Grinches” outnumbered the elves.
“Bah humbug,” you say, “it’s no big deal.” But, according to one university professor, incivility’s pervasiveness, and its escalating repercussions, are strong signs our communal and societal bonds are breaking down.
“Civility is an important indicator of the health of a society,” says law and philosophy Professor Robert C. L. Moffat of the University of Florida’s Fredric G. Levin College of Law. “Incivility, by the same token, indicates societal decline. Taken far enough, it means nothing less than the destruction of society.”
Bullies, raging political parties, and irate shoppers fighting over parking spaces – however annoying – may not seem like threats to society. But, according to Moffat, they are. In his chapter entitled “Incivility Everywhere!” — part of a larger book-length work, “Civility and its Discontents,” to be published in 2001 by University of Kansas Press — Moffat says there is substantial research “showing these ‘mere’ incivilities generate not only harmful stress, but far more serious social pathologies, including even murder.”
“The shopper who grabs the last fruitcake from under your hand, or the New Year’s Eve party guest who becomes obnoxious, may seem like only annoyances,” Moffat explains. “But, simple rudeness can be deadly. A Florida woman failed to respond to a younger woman’s ‘Good afternoon,’ and was challenged for her lack of manners. She subsequently died from a heart attack brought on by the stress of the incident, and the young woman who challenged her now faces murder charges.”
In addition, he says, “We read all too often of road rage that culminates in murder. Similarly, reports of air rage occur frequently, with worries by airline personnel of more and more violent confrontations.”
Among factors Moffat says contribute to modern incivility are the decline of reciprocity (members of society no longer feel bound by reciprocal duties toward one another), weakening social cohesion, growth of excess negative liberty (fewer constraints to inhibit inappropriate actions), peril of prosperity and the degeneration of personal responsibility.
The answer to this growing incivility, Moffat contends, is civil discourse.
“I believe all these ills are so deeply ingrained in our society that dislodging them would require nothing less than heroic efforts,” he says. “Merely pointing out incivilities will not be effective, because defenders of that particular viewpoint will react both defensively and offensively. Only if someone is a member of the group whose incivility she points out, is there a possibility of effectiveness.”
“It’s up to each of us,” Moffat says, “especially during a holiday season, to rededicate ourselves to becoming more tolerant and more responsible. Each of us must take personal responsibility for solving the problem. We must scold wrongdoers, but we must be reasonable and respectful in doing so. We must avoid the urge to fight extremists with extremism. We must embrace our successes with humility, and accept our failures as opportunities to develop greater solidarity.”
“Most importantly,” he concludes, “we must remember all of us are part of the society we so often criticize. Perhaps that should be our New Year’s resolution.”
Moffat, a member of UF’s law faculty since 1966, is also an affiliate professor of philosophy. He has been executive director, American Section, of the International Association for Philosophy of Law & Social Philosophy since 1987, and American editor of the “Archives for Philosophy of Law & Social Philosophy” since 1991.