In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville recognized the impact of our freedoms on the individual and community. He writes: “You are free not to think as I do; your goods, your life, everything remains to you; but from this day on, you remain a stranger among us. You shall keep your privileges in the city, but they become useless to you. If you demand … esteem, [your fellow citizens] will still pretend to refuse it to you. You shall remain among men, but you shall lose your rights of humanity.”
Therein lies the rub of free choice and free speech: In the court of public opinion, others may not agree with you, and the lack of agreement may have social consequences, decreasing the population of like-minded folks willing to support your enterprise.
De Tocqueville also recognized the impact of our ever-increasing equality on civility in manners — softening them. As social standards have progressed over the years, decades and centuries, we have become increasingly tolerant of the free choices each one of us may make, as well as those matters about which life gives us no choice.
At the heart of our freedoms, set forth by our founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence and our Bill of Rights, christened by the blood of our ancestors and loved ones, rendering us more socially equal, lies the civility in manners seen long ago by de Tocqueville. Mutual civility is what makes it enjoyable to walk the streets of Cold Spring, to patronize our businesses, to support our churches, schools and charities, and to participate in the many organizations that make up our community.
Civility has been such a basic assumption in our community that its breach is the ready subject of comic behavior. Famously, years ago, on Saturday Night Live, in a skit called “Point-Counterpoint,” Jane Curtain would give an uptight exaggerated editorial presentation, to which Roseanna-anna-danna would reply, week in and week out, “Jane, you ignorant slut.” We thought it was hilarious.
Little did we know, that, as media grew beyond the original three broadcast networks to include a multitude of cable channels, the Internet and other outlets, the success of Saturday Night Live would foster the Roseanna-anna-danna School of Journalism, where exaggerated opinion presented for comic effect now displaces responsible reporting of interesting, useful news. And so, as incivility has become the craze of politics and popular culture, our supposed “news” media have rendered themselves inherently less valuable, failing to justify the burdens they would impose on our time and money.
De Tocqueville’s observations over 180 years ago continue to be valid today. While we are more socially tolerant than ever, restraint from attacking the dignity of one’s neighbors and fellow business people remains necessary to participate in our community. When a business chooses to pursue incivility for competitive advantage, it removes itself from community. The folks running that business should not be surprised when the community chooses to stop supporting it.