P. M. Forni calls for civility now

Rebecca Jania

As a strong addition to this year’s theme, “Now Is The Time . Civility,” P.M. Forni presented a lecture on civility in modern society to Western Illinois University students, faculty and community members Thursday.Forni is a professor of Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University. He co-founded the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, a study of civility in contemporary society and an advocacy program for considerate behavior. He also wrote “Choosing Civility,” a novel based on his research in civility.

According to Forni, civility isn’t only having good manners. Civility is any act of courtesy or kindness that one does for another person.

“We have good manners when handling others with care. The hand can hit or it can smooth; it can crush or it can lift.

“Being civil means being aware of one another, because when we are aware of one another, we will weave respect into the cloth of awareness. (Civility) involves ethical choices. When you give your seat on the bus to someone who needs it more, you not only show kindness towards that person, you show that you are civil and ethical,” he said.

Forni believes civility and good manners are not trivial matters.

“It’s not just about form and formality. It’s about quality of life. It requires respect for human life and the ability to perceive human life as valuable,” he said.

However, according to Forni, civility is downplayed in modern society.

“Many people wonder why we should worry about manners and civility when facing real problems, such as violence, stress and greed,” he said.

He added there are five causes for this downplay: low impressions of leaders in the government, the media, anonymity, stress and the pursuit of individual identity in a society of equals.

According to Forni, a low impression of leaders in the government will create a decline of faith in authority in general. He said because of this, the authority figures that are supposed to teach children to have manners and behave, parents, will no longer have their children believing what they are taught.

During the lecture, Forni discussed anonymity as the phenomenon through which neighbors no longer know one another.

According to Forni, stress makes people less tolerant of the mistakes others make. He said these factors play together to create an uncivil society, citing incidences of road rage.

Forni said when drivers do not know those who are in the cars around them, they are more apt to become angry. However, when drivers recognize someone they know, they behave civilly.

“When we’re not anonymous, it’s in our best interest to behave, because we will see these people in our everyday lives,” Forni said.

The pursuit of individuality can be a large problem.

“Equality and individuality are often at odds with each other. We want to be seen as individuals, to make our mark on the world, and to do this we become goal-oriented, often money-oriented.

“We don’t slow down to be kind or considerate. Our behavior towards others becomes coarser,” Forni said.

He presented three arguments to encourage civility as a part of our everyday lives, the first being respect for persons.

The second argument involved civility and physical violence.

Forni said in any given year, there are two million acts of physical violence in the American workplace.

“Many violent acts have origins in incivility. Incivility easily escalates into violence. Therefore, if we reduce incivility, we will reduce violence,” he said.

The third argument stood for overall health.

Mind and body medicine has shown that to have a long, healthy and sane life, one must be a part of a network of people.

“The more we receive social support, the more we thrive. People who lead isolated lives become ill earlier in life and have an earlier death.

“This is not the quality of life in play here, it is the length of life. We must motivate others to want to be around us. We need relational competence,” Forni said.

Forni also shared research showing the importance of children’s social skills.

“Children who show good social skills are less likely to become abusive and violent adults. Likewise, children who show poor social skills are more likely to become abusive and violent adults,” he said.

Forni also explained economic problems that may result from a lack of civility.

“In the workplace, an employee who has been treated with incivility may be distracted by the perpetrator. They may not work as much, because they are distracted, which would lose money for the company, or they may have to change their job,” he said.

However, Forni does feel that civility is increasing in some aspects of society.

“There are more men now who treat women as mental and physical equals in the workplace than there were in my father’s time,” he said.

According to Forni, good manners and civility will end up making life better by making relationships better.

“A part of our being resides in the souls of those with whom we come in contact.

“Whether or not we like it, we are the wax upon which others leave their mark,” he said. Forni believes that we should treat others with kindness and civility, similar to the Golden Rule.

“When people are civil to us, we translate it into an act of kindness to ourselves. We think, `I am not alone. I have value and my life has meaning,'” Forni said.

“This is the first time that Western has a campus-wide theme,” said Dan Maxwell, the director of student activities at Western, referring to this year’s theme, “Now Is The Time . Civility.”

“We are attempting to keep a dialogue running about what civility means to us.”

Forni travels nationwide presenting on civility to groups and organizations.

“Western is doing something pioneeristic in the field.

“I often tell other groups about how the university has this as their theme,” Forni said.