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The Role of (generations and) Civility in Democracy

4 Oct

My local library is hosting a symposium this week; it’s titled, “The Role of Civility in Democracy.” With mid-term elections, the prevalence of nasty political campaign ads, and the library’s Choose Civility initiative, all these factors add up to a well-timed event. I also believe there is another reason this  event is well-timed, and it has to do with generational dynamics and cultural change. Now, I’m not a historian, but I am well-versed in the generational theory, so come with me on this path, if you’d like to see “the role of civility in democracy” through a generation-theory lens. Here goes —

There are four generational archetypes that appear in a fixed, repeating cycle. They are affected by and affect other generations. They each have their strengths, their value, their weaknesses and their paths. Each generation is approximately 20 years in length, or the equivalent of a phase of life (childhood, young adulthood, midlife, elderhood). Right now, the constellation of generations in America is this:

The Silent Gen are moving into elder-elderhood. Born 1924 – 1942, they are 68-86 years old in 2010, and their numbers, per the U.S. Census, are about 30 million. Their archetype’s principal endowments are in the realm of pluralism, expertise and due process. This is the true Civil Rights generation that fought for rights from a perspective of sensitivity to the weaker among the community.

The Boomer Gen is moving into elderhood. Born 1943-1960, they are 50 -67 years old in 2010, and their numbers are about 62 million.Their archetype’s principal endowments are in the realm of vision, values and religion. They are the “principled moralists, summoners of human sacrifice and wagers of righteous wars.”

The GenX Gen is moving into midlife. Born 1961-1981, they are 29-49 years old in 2010, and their numbers are about 81 million. Their archetype’s principal endowments are in the realm of liberty, survival and honor. They are the get-it-done generation and are “cunning, hard-to-fool realists—taciturn warriors who prefer to meet problems and adversaries one-on-one.”

The Millennial Gen is moving into young adulthood. Born 1982-2004(ish), they are 6-28 years old in 2010, and their numbers are about 80 million. Their archetype’s principal endowments are in the realm of community, affluence and technology. They are a bright, upbeat, team-working generation.

The Homeland Gen is being born now and just entering the K-8 system. They will, assuming the generational cycles repeat, have a life course that is similar to the Silent Gen.

All the quoted text in this post, by the way, is from Strauss and Howe’s work, e.g. Lifecourse Associates.

So, let’s look at “civility and democracy” through this lens … not just that there are generations, but in which phase of life each generation has been, and how it will impact the phase of life it is now moving into and the surrounding generations.

In the past 25 years, Boomers were the primary gen in mid-life. Mid-life is about power. Think about it: it’s the 42-62-years-old people. Families are mostly started and kids, if they are still young, are typically in elementary school or beyond. School is done. Professional capacity and community leadership are realms of directed energy for many in mid-life. Boomers in midlife, per @lifecourse, “preach a downbeat, values-fixated ethic of moral conviction.” In other words, they are argumentative, passionate, focused on their values (one does not negotiate “values”) and more interested in their convictions than they are in solutions. To have even talked of civility in democracy while Boomers were in midlife would have been an argument, in and of itself, about whose values were more civil.

In the past 25 years, GenXers were the primary gen in young adulthood. Young adulthood is about vitality, about serving institutions with energy and the excitement of a life to be experienced. GenXers in young adulthood are “brazen free agents, lending their pragmatism and independence to an era of growing social turmoil.” To have asked GenXers in young adulthood to speak of civility in democracy would have been seen as a joke. GenXers are not trusting of institutions, by and large, to do right by them as individuals or as a generation and, therefore, do not put a lot of faith in democracy and governments to solve problems. Nor would GenXers compete in Boomer turf to gain voice at that phase of life. Boomers were simply too culturally dominant then, both by phase of life and certainty that their values were more relevant and needing to be heard.

In the past 25 years, Millennials were the primary gen in childhood and have been “nurtured with increasing protection by pessimistic adults in an insecure environment.” Millennials in childhood have grown up believing that government is good. All they have to do is turn on the news to hear campaigning politicians proclaim that they are a more child-friendly candidate than their opponent. In their childhood years they experienced a stream of increasing child-focused programs and initiatives being funded. They have no memory of Civil Rights tensions, nor of the contentiousness around the Viet Nam war-skirmish-geopoltical maneuver. They have watched their next-elder GenXers scramble and tumble through McJobs, unreliable contract work and extreme sports-behaviors-attitudes that are a bit too edgy for their tastes.

In the past 25 years, the Silent gen were the primary gen in elderhood. They have lived life by the rules, keeping their heads down in young adulthood, and hitting phases of life at relatively uneventful times to be the age they were. So, in their elderhood, while midlife Boomers slashed society with their moralistic rants, and GenXers rapidly transformed the culture with their take-what-you-can-and-cash-out-quickly approach, the Silent Gen helped “quicken the pace of social change, shunning the old order in favor of complexity and sensitivity.”

OK, “so what,” you might be saying. Well, generations move through time, which is why unless someone is pinging to the archetypes, years and definitions of Strauss and Howe, they are really talking about “demographics” and not “generations.” But I digress. OK, so time has moved along. We are not 25 years back, but 25 years forward. Let’s look at each of these generations and their impact on “civility in democracy.”

Today, Boomers are moving into elderhood where they “push to resolve ever-deepening moral choices, setting the stage for the secular goals of the young.” In other words, Boomers (will) finally have a moment of realizing as a generation that they are the elders and that their legacy as generation is perilously close to being abysmal. And Boomers are about their moral legacy, so this dawning sense that their moralistic rants and red-state-blue-state politics are putting in peril not just the nation, not just the rising generation of young adulthoods (their beloved Millennials), but their l-e-g-a-c-y, as well … this is the wake-up call for Boomers to self-correct and align in a more civil, go-forward direction that is — while not-less-moral — less polarizing. Or perhaps I should say, the Boomers who wish to have their voices included in the coming dialogue about where our nation is going will do so. Those who continue to polarize will be marginalized, which will be a system-shocker for those Boomers who’ve come to believe that polarizing is how to get attention/focus/dollars.

Today, GenXers are moving into midlife with the first POTUS of this generation currently in power. GenXers in midlife “apply toughness and resolution to defend society while safeguarding the interests of the young.” The challenge for GenXers in midlife — long at the edge, the extremes, the fringes — is to come  in to power structures, bring their capacities to solve problems without all the bantering around moral direction and vision that Boomers have done, and to force change toward fixing broken systems, businesses, governments and more. GenXers in young adulthood have been a cranky generation, a grunge-y generation, a leave-me-alone generation. To be included in the public conversation about what needs to be changed and how it will be done, GenXers need to release much of their crankiness and instead lead and make things happen.

Today, Millennials are moving into young adulthood with a trust of government, institutions and corporations do not only do right by them, but do right by their generation, and — by their thinking and the cycle of generations — do right by the nation. Millennials in young adulthood “challenge the political failure of elder-led crusades, fueling a society-wide secular crisis.” Millennials don’t understand (don’t have any personal experience with) moralistic, values-based battles to which many Boomers still cling. Millennials don’t understand GenXers’ crankiness, as they have received the opposite treatment as GenXers got in childhood; they were precious to adults, while GenXers were forgotten. They are being exalted and talked about and supported while they are moving into young adulthood and new careers, while GenXers were met with temp jobs, contract work and a “no vacancy” job market in their young adulthood. More to the point, Millennials like team work. They are bright-eyed and upbeat. They believe their generation to be very capable of solving large-scale problems and don’t need experience to prove this: they already know it to be true about themselves and their generation. Heck, they’ve been getting awards, gold stars and adulation since they’ve been in kindergarten! In other words, Millennials don’t understand Boomers’ nastiness and GenXers’ crankiness. (Was I just cranky in my explanation here?)

Now, are generations the only influence making “civility and democracy” a timely issue? No, of course not. But generational theory does provide some clues as to why “civility” is becoming a more a desired and important value at this point and time. It is time to be civil once again in democracy and politics. Or at least for civility to start to have a stronger toehold in the conversations. Nobody except Boomers cares about Boomer values wars anymore, and, I’d add, some Boomers are growing tired of the same-ol-same-ol from their generation. Nobody cares about GenX crankiness anymore, except equally cranky GenXers. And Millennials are showing up in jobs, in politics, in communities and in organizations, believing that life and work and community and governance can all be balanced and good. It won’t change overnight, for sure, but — and perhaps — a bit more civility will get us there faster.

Rock on.

How I met one of the most interesting of men

19 May

Back in my early days of blogging, I aimed to have a local blog; hence, the url my blog still has today: In those early days, I wrote much of local issues as I saw and framed them, and many people — those I knew and those I didn’t — commented and engaged in the conversation on my blog. And, in those early days, one day I had a most interesting and thoughtful comment from someone named Frank Hecker. I’d never heard of Frank Hecker. I’d never met Frank Hecker. But I wanted to. I wrote back to him. We shared a few email exchanges. He commented a few more times, and we got to know each other a bit better … to the point where I wanted to meet him face to face.

Frank is a busy man. He’s got a family, a significant job in the tech sphere and a life to lead. He’s a quiet person. He’s not the kind of person the movers and shakers of the local community would ever know if Frank’s only voice and way to connect was one that required getting out, schmoozing, signing petitions and sitting in long, boring-*ss public meetings where so many attendees seem content to get their three-minutes at the mic to say their piece. Nope, he’s not that kind of guy.

Yet and still, his voice, his thinking, his problem solving, his concern and his willingness to thoughtfully sort his perspective and communicate it in a clear way is an addition to the conversation in and around the community of Howard County. Frank Hecker is one of the most interesting of men I’ve met in the last few years.

I’m going to fast forward here a sec. Frank has, albeit infrequently, written about local concerns on his own blog, and he does, on occasion, comment on other local blogs. Recently, he commented on Wordbones’ blog: one of the more popular blogs in The Hoco. He was attacked as being “smug” and told to yada-yada-yada-and-then-tell-me-such-and-such by anonymous commenters who seemed unable to actually have a conversation with Frank on the subject and issues in his comments. And, Frank, true to his nature, has a solution for such snipers. He’s written a thoughtful piece titled, ”

To the anonymous commenters of Howard County.

I recommend reading the piece.

Perhaps, you’ll like his writing and his thinking. Perhaps not.

I, for one, consider him one of the most interesting of men, and I hope more local bloggers will “choose civility” and — at a minimum — adopt an approach to comments that require people to either use an online identity or use a comment identity tracking system such HocoRising is doing by using DISQUS.

My two cents.

What to do when people are rude.

6 Mar

what-to-do-when-people-are-rude-pm-forni.jpgI probably should have used Title Case capitalization in that headline, as it is part of a book title. What book? It’s Dr. PM Forni’s, of Choosing Civility fame, second book, and it’s called The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude.

Anyhoo. I saw this book title today and told my friend and Choose Civility Partner Cherie about it. She scowled slightly and said, “Rude, according to who?” Maybe she said, “to whom.” I don’t remember.

Interesingly, we happened to be standing outside of the Columbia Borders just then: the same place where, a couple weeks back, I had one of my biggest ever You’re-Rude-No-You’re-Rude incidents.

Here’s a little story without a happy ending.

I was at said Borders when a rather handsome man, about my age, and carrying a girl about three years-old came in to the cafe. He put this child on the counter. Not on her butt. On her feet. Her feet (shoes) on the counter. The same counter where people put their hands, which they then put to their mouths as they eat and drink various and sundry things one buys at a cafe.

The child started to meander — as little children do. She leaned over to the area protected by the plexiglas screen. She moved around on the counter. How fun to be up so high!

This is all during prime flu season, mind you. I think bottom of shoes and I think spores, bacteria, germs, viruses, protozoa from animal feces. Ya know, icky things.

So, I consciously and intentionally chose to be rude. I really did. “Dude, I’d really appreciate it if you wouldn’t put your daughter’s feet and shoes on a counter top where I put my hands.”

He glared. I repeated my position. He glared.

We happened to be already packing up, but he glared at me some more and said to me, “I find you very rude.”

“I know you do,” I responded, rather upbeat, actually. “I find you rude, too. The difference, as I see it, is that my rudeness impacts you. Your rudeness is a public health issue.”

And I left.

He probably glared some more as I did.

So, back to the book The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know what Dr. Forni would prescribe. Probably not to be rude in the first place.

I don’t know. I did not feel like being polite in this situation. I actually wanted to give this man a memory so that he’d consider his actions in future situations.

What about you? What do you do when people are rude?

Be hospitable

5 Nov

If you’ve ever endured watching even 15 minutes of TV with me, you’d know that I watch TV just as much for the commercials, trend-spotting and cultural insights as for the programming. And I’m vocal about what I see. It was with just this lens that I watched The Hilton Family’s latest “Be hospitable” commercial. It really pulled me in. Perhaps because our county’s own “Choose Civility” initiative. Perhaps because the tone of the commercial seemed a bit different to me.

Well, I checked out their website, and lo and behold, they got themselves a whole campaign on the subject including a website for collecting, mapping and posting “hospitality sitings.” From their site: “If you see an act of human kindness, report it here. Together let’s start of movement of goodwill throughout the world.” Overall, it’s pretty groovy. They even have a section for parents with tips and info about helping kids be more hospitable at an early age, a concept which ties in easily with being civil.

I know some people think Howard County’s Choose Civility initiative is a crock of —. Another campaign for another cause. I’m of a different ilk. I think that the library and county was right on target in creating this initiative … even ahead of the curve. I’ve been seeing signs of a new cultural mood of civility in advertising for the last 12-18 months, and, I’d predict, it will be on the rise.

If you do check out the Be Hospitable site and read the stories, you’ll probably note the author’s voice imprint. It appears, at least to my ears, that current stories are written (or at least edited) by the same person. Perhaps, in time, real people will write in.

For now, I have my own version of this concept in two local forms: one is a blog I co-write with my Thinking Buddy Cherie, and the second is a Facebook group wherein people can post “civility spottings.”

There’s a whole generational lens on this subject as well, but that’s another blog post for another day.


1 May

I find the veil of anonymity really fascinating.

I recently attended a lecture where Dr. P.M. Forni, author of Choose Civility, spoke at Howard Community College. Dr. Forni discussed the correlation between anonymity and incivility. Paraphrasing, the increase in anonymous interactions on the phone, internet and highways, in particular, create situations where people don’t feel the need to self-monitor their own civility.

He gave an example of a scenario in which two drivers begin escalating their anger toward each other. If they turned and saw that they knew each other, they would instantly find their situation diffused in the recognition that the other driver was a person with whom they had a relationship.

In the blogosphere, I find it fascinating that people feel it’s completely acceptable to blast another person’s reputation while not revealing their own. Not only do I find it fascinating, I did it myself. And, as I have stated before, I don’t believe there is any true anonymity on the internet.

Here’s my little story: Like most of my stories, I don’t end up looking so great. But, there’s good information here.

One day, before I’d started Hometown Columbia, I got all riled up by a particular Columbia Council member’s letter to the editor, which had been published in The Columbia Flier. This particular person seemed to have claimed that she alone knew WWJRD regarding downtown development. (That’d be What Would Jim Rouse Do? for those of you not in the know.) So, in my state of being riled, I posted an anonymous comment on Wordbones’ Tale of Two Cities blog. (In my experience, being riled, blogging, and posting comments don’t go so well together.)

Now, I had more than my suspicions about who Wordbones was. See, he’s not really hiding. He just has a pseudonym. And all his data was right there in his blog. I knew who he was, I hadn’t had a face-to-face conversation with him in a couple years and I wanted to talk to him.

See, about a week after posting my anonymous comment on his blog, I emailed Wordbones and asked him if he’d like to get together for lunch. He said straight out, “Hey, was that you who posted anonymously on my blog about XYZ channeling Jim Rouse?”

Yep, that was me. “Anonymous, my *ss,” I’d have to say.


Which made me laugh. And just reinforced my beliefs about online identity. There is no hiding. People may *think* they are hidden behind a veil of anonymity. But, ultimately, they’re not. Everyone eventually trips up. Dontchyall watch any sleuth-CSI-mystery-homicide stuff?

So, I’m not against anonymity in every single case for every single type of internet discussion. I just think you better darn well be willing to put your name to a statement and own your perspective iffin you ever get outed. Otherwise, don’t comment if you can’t own it.

See, when I commented about being tired of this council member’s “channeling Jim Rouse,” I knew I was hitting below the belt. I highly doubt she holds seances with the dead. My comment wasn’t meant to add value. It was meant to punch. To rile. And anonymity — momentary as it was … blasted open here by my owning it now — rarely yields a civil conversation. If people were being civil, they wouldn’t need to hide.

If someone needs to be a whistle blower about toxic chemicals being dumped into Lake Kittamaqundi that’s one thing. But using anonymity to claim someone should be “walloped upside the head,” … well, that’s just plain mean. And value-less.

At least that’s how I feel about what I did when I got involved in the anonymous fray.

The lesson I learned is this: Under the veil of anonymity, I felt no ownership of my words and no responsibility for the effect they may have. In short: I felt no need to be civil.

As blogger Tim O’Reilly states in his Call for a Bloggers’ Code of Conduct:

We celebrate the blogosphere because it embraces frank and open conversation in ways that were long missing from mainstream media and marketing-dominated corporate websites. But frankness does not have to mean lack of civility. There’s no reason why we should tolerate conversations online that we wouldn’t tolerate in our living room.

A culture is a set of shared agreements that allows us to live together. Let’s make sure that the culture we create with our blogs is one that we are proud of.

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