As civilization moves on, we seem to be getting less civilized. In 2012, we can create global disapproval of an African warlord or spurn a Middle East tyrant from our living room. However, in daily life public figures are inappropriately called socialists or fascists, and heaven help the person who cuts us off in traffic — there aren't words for that kind of villainy.
We recently saw an article online about a little girl who was badly injured in an honest accident. The wave of comments following the story viciously insulted the family and other commenters. Recently in a church service, one of us sat behind a 3-year-old boy who was busy running his toy car along the pew. When the man at the pulpit used the word "democratic," the little boy stopped playing and with disgust said, "I hate Democrats."
There are many places such deep rancor comes from. We could go on about snarky media, shocking video games or the breakdown of the family. But we want to go right to ground zero: a problem within ourselves.
In 1967 social scientists Edward Jones and Victor Harris asked people to read an essay and determine whether the author disliked or liked Fidel Castro. Those in the control group who read pro-Castro essays assumed the author really liked Castro. That's not interesting. The intriguing result happened in the experimental group where those who read a pro-Castro essay were told the author was forced to write a favorable essay. That group still concluded the author really liked Castro.
This observation was the beginning of what would later be called the fundamental attribution error — a fancy way of saying individuals assume they do disagreeable things in response to valid conditions while others act unfavorably because of character flaws. It works like this: If I don't exercise this month it's because I'm slammed with work and family commitments; if you don't exercise, it's because you lack willpower.
Once we stop assuming that anything we disagree with is done because of some character flaw, it's much easier to remain civil. That politician isn't a moron; maybe he/she's merely been shaped by different experiences. That man who cut me off on the freeway isn't a jerk; he probably couldn't see me.
We're not saying there are no morons or jerks. We are saying we should always be open to the idea that other people are like ourselves. When people do things we dislike, instead of making unflattering labels we should investigate their reasons for acting. We might discover they had good motives. Perhaps we'll learn they were simply misinformed, unwell or untrained. Regardless, in this investigative process, we will have mentally treated others like we treat ourselves. And what is more civil than applying the golden rule?
Neil and Daniel Staker work for PeopleSmart Solutions, a local training and consulting firm.