P. M. Forni teaches civility and Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University and is the co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project (1997-2000). In this watershed work, he presents 25 basic rules of civility in order to establish the importance of kindness, courtesy, and good manners in everyday life.
This book is desperately needed in our times given the coarsening in all levels of American society. Who hasn't been dismayed by the rudeness on the streets, the disregard of the rights of others in public places, the rage which flares out not only on roads but also in schools and at sports events. Clearly we have lost sight of an ancient tradition, which Forni describes as follows:
"The age-old assumption behind civility is that life in the city has a civilizing effect. The city is where we enlighten our intellect and refine our social skills. And as we are shaped by the city, we learn to give of ourselves for the sake of the city. Although we can describe the civil as courteous, polite, and well-mannered, etymology reminds us that they are also supposed to be good citizens and good neighbors."
The challenge today is to find fresh ways to groom our spirits, something religious teachers have encouraged throughout history. The first rule of civility is to pay attention. In our interaction with others, far too often we are indifferent to their presence or needs. Two more rules revolve around speech: don't speak ill, and accept and give praise. So much harm comes through gossip, and so much good can come from voicing our appreciation of others and what they have done for us.
In our adversarial culture, this rule is rarely heeded: give constructive criticism. Far too much time and energy is spent on maliciously putting down other people's actions, ideas, and projects. Being a considerate guest is another of Forni's basic rules of civility. It applies not only to being considerate in another's home but must extend to public places as well.
Let's hope that Choosing Civility gets a wide readership. Perhaps religious leaders from all the traditions could work together on a global civility project for the twenty-first century. They have the resources to make the tire hit the road in their scriptures and rich teachings about loving others, putting them first, and being truly attentive to their needs. For now, Forni's book offers much food for thought.