by Tom Hinton
In his classic book, A World Waiting To Be Born: Civility Rediscovered, the late author Dr. M. Scott Peck, noted that today’s society suffers a serious and disruptive illness -- incivility. Dr. Peck believed our destructive patterns of self-absorption, callousness, manipulativeness, and materialism are so ingrained in our routine behavior that we cannot recognize them. Like Dr. Peck, I believe incivility is fatal to companies, government agencies and politicians who treat people with contempt or indifference.
During the past few weeks, there have been numerous cases of incivility that cause me to wonder how people in important positions can act so callously or dim-witted? Regrettably, the examples of incivility range from President Obama labeling the Cambridge Police Department as “acting stupidly” to sports and, not surprisingly, the whipping boy of consumer dissatisfaction -- the airlines industry.
Unfortunately, for President Obama, his choice of words was less than presidential. To label the Cambridge Police Department for “acting stupidly” before Mr. Obama had all the facts left him open to criticism and derailed his health care reform efforts while his critics crowded the airwaves dissecting his ill-chosen comments. It took a few beers and photos at the White House with Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates, Jr. to clear the air and get the president out of the Cambridge dog house. It was a tough lesson for Mr. Obama on civility and choosing one’s words more carefully.
Next, consider the bonehead decision by the management of Continental Express to allow 47 passengers to sit for six hours on a deserted tarmac after flying from Houston to Minneapolis -- only to be diverted to Rochester some 90 miles away. After nine hours, the all-night camp-out on Continental Express Flight 2816 took on the smell of soiled baby diapers and a backed-up toilet that was over-used by the stranded passengers in the regional jet. You would think that after JetBlue committed a similar blunder two years ago -- stranding thousands of passengers on planes that sat within spitting distance of the JFK terminal -- that Continental Express would not make the same dumb mistake. What should have been a 2 1/2-hour trip from Houston to Minneapolis became a nightmare for those 47 passengers. It also provides us with a new definition for incivility. After all, what civil-minded person would confine 47 passengers in a foul-smelling airplane without ample food and water for nine hours? It borders on torture let alone stupidity.
But, common sense is not common in the airline industry. Just ask, United Airlines which continues to suffer stock losses and the disdain of consumers who watched guitarist Dave Carroll’s YouTube video saga entitled, United Breaks Guitars. Passengers sitting aboard a plane in Chicago witnessed UAL baggage handlers tossing Carroll’s guitar like a football. When Carroll retrieved his expensive Taylor guitar at his destination, he found it had been broken. Carroll’s efforts to have United Airlines fix his instrument fell on deaf ears for 9 months. So, Carroll wrote the widely popular song, United Breaks Guitars, which has been viewed by 4 million people. Is it simply a coincidence that many stock analysts believe the Mr. Carroll’s United Breaks Guitars sage has cost UAL millions in stock losses? If so, that’s an expensive lesson in civility and disdain for your customers!
Another example of incivility concerns Tiger Woods, who was fined by the PGA Tour for his public criticism of a rules official after winning last week’s Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio. In this example of incivility and a lack of common sense, Tiger is being unfairly punished by the PGA for criticizing the referee, John Paramour, who told Woods and Padraig Harrington they were being “put on the clock” for slow play at a critical time in the final round of the tournament. At the time, Harrington clung to a slim one-shot lead at the par-5 16th hole. The comment by Mr. Paramour rattled Harrington. Tiger Woods said afterwards said the intrusion by Paramour caused Harrington to rush three difficult shots that led to his devastating triple bogey on the 6th hole. Harrington never recovered and Woods went on to win the tournament by four shots. Woods said he told Harrington after it was over, “I’m sorry that John [Paramour] got in the way of a great battle.” This is why the PGA fined Woods.
While Woods and Harrington lagged behind the players in front of them, their pace seemed steady for a competitive two-man duel. While the PGA will argue that Paramour was within his right to put Woods and Harrington “on the clock,” his timing was terrible and, thus, lacked civility. Even well-intentioned people make bonehead plays that confound common sense.
Finally, I’m sure Dr. Peck would be troubled -- as I am -- by the recent incivility at the various congressional town hall meetings as the merits of a proposed health care reform plan are debated. Certainly, such a sweeping proposal will draw many different ideas, comments and opposing viewpoints. But, in watching the news coverage of these town hall meetings, it is both disgraceful and undignified how so many Americans are conducting themselves. Whatever happened to civil discourse and allowing one person to voice their opinion before an opposing thought is expressed? Instead, I see angry old men yelling and screaming at women and children. For what? If this is political theatre, shame of those who would defame America’s prized ritual of debate. Is this the image of American society we want to project to the world that is watching America discuss health care reform? This is how we earned the distasteful label, “Ugly American.”
It should come as no surprise that many of our children hold politics, politicians, and various television news commentary programs in contempt. In their minds, our generation is not a role model for civility. We are a generation that represents everything negative, spiteful and perverse in American society. We lack common sense, self-respect, and a sense of decency and fairness not only for ourselves but for other nations as well. We have, as Dr. Peck feared, become a discredited society that is self-absorbed, callous, manipulative, and completely consumed with material things.
Can it be that we have become a nation without feelings and emotions? As one college student remarked to me last week, “America has lost its soul. I’m disgusted with all of you.” Frankly, she’s right… I’m disgusted with all of you, too!
About the Author: Thomas Hinton is president of the American Consumer Council, a non-profit consumer education organization which administers ACC’s Green C™ Certification Program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org