The American incivil war

January 24, 1997

A GROUP of 48 academics and other intellectuals is addressing what is perceived to be a growing bad manners in American life.

The commission, which was organised by the University of Pennsylvania, includes 38 scholars, a former United States senator, philanthropists, lawyers, judges and the writers E. L. Doctorow and Calvin Trillin.

Judith Rodin, president of the University of Pennsylvania, said: "Many of us believe we are approaching a critical moment in our society.

"Social and political life seems dominated today by incivility, ideological extremism, an unwillingness to compromise and an intolerance for opposition," she added in a speech announcing the National Commission on Society, Culture and Community.

In a recent poll, 89 per cent of Americans said they think incivility is a serious problem and 78 per cent said it has got worse over the past decade.

The finding follows a contentious election campaign in which the manners of the candidates became as much a focus as the issues.

But "this is not just about politics," said Stephen Steinberg, a University of Pennsylvania lecturer in philosophy who is serving as the group's executive director. "It's clear that something is extending this pattern of behaviour into society at large."

Worried social critics say the move to meanness has been hastened by the violent lyrics of rap music, extremist and racist political speech, random violence and insults over the Internet.

They say that political parties, religious institutions and family relationships that once provided forums for reasoned debate have weakened.

Abundant examples of public corruption and dishonesty have led to widespread cynicism. Television has isolated people.

"One of the things I see is that whenever one's opinions or beliefs become absolutised, then everything is permissible in the pursuit of those beliefs," said Dr Steinberg. "The great fear, and one of our motivations, is that if we don't change the direction in which we are headed, it's going to get a lot worse rather quickly."

The commission plans to meet twice a year for at least the next three years and propose potential solutions, which are to be distributed through the mass media and over the Internet.

Its Web site address is http://www.upenn.edu/pnc/.

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