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Can Kindness Be Mandated? Howard County's Civility Experiment

RadCivlittle.jpgIs Howard County nicer than it used to be?

After all, in 2006 the county launched its "Choose Civility" initiative, a campaign inspired by the work of Johns Hopkins professor P.M. Forni. Has that made a difference in the quality of life in the county?

I'll get to that question a little later. First I want to retrace the steps that led to the county-wide "Choose Civility" initiative. It all started at the library. Dr. Forni's book "Choosing Civility" caught the eye of the county's library director, Valerie Gross. She invited him in to speak at a staff development day. Staff members were so moved by his message (in a nutshell: "civility is fundamental to the making of a good, successful and serene life") that it was expanded to the whole library system and then the community at large.

"Civility" reading lists were drawn up: one for adults, one for teens, one for little kids. Seminars were held. Partners were located. Money was raised. Posters were printed. Vehicle magnets were ordered.


That the movement should have been birthed in the library makes sense. Libraries are one of the last public places where rules of civility are actually enforced. If you're noisy, you will be shushed. Also, said Christie Lassen, director of PR for HoCo's libraries, "We serve the entire county, everyone, regardless of age, economic background or status.... In terms of who to do it, who else?"

The campaign has garnered a fair amount of publicity, with articles in The Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. But it has not been without its critics, who point out that living in a society necessarily includes negotiating uncivil situations. Does promulgating ironclad rules of civility merely turn all of us into enforcers?

I have my own observations. I notice, for example, there are no movie theaters among the Alliance Partners. The Great Sage Restaurant is a partner but Christie wasn't sure whether its involvement included training the staff to be polite to customers or chiding customers who are rude to each other. A bank is a partner, but has it instituted a policy of throwing out patrons who yap on their cell phones while in line?

In other words, it's easy to say you're for civility, but how do you show it? Well, you could show it with a "Choose Civility" vehicle magnet. Some 60,000 have been distributed, or one for every 4.5 people living in Howard County. "We can’t even keep them on the shelves," Christie said. "We’re out now."

But has any of it made people nicer to one another? The only way to know for sure is to have performed what's called a longitudinal study. Some benchmark should have been established before the campaign started and then a representative sampling of populace should have been surveyed regularly ever since. You could come up with a "civility quotient" and tracked it over time.

"We have not done any sort of studies like that," Christie said. "All we have right now are anecdotal stories."

Anecdotal stories are the bane of scientists but they still possess some value. Christie said people have reported being more understanding of other drivers when they spot a car magnet. Where most of the change seems to have occurred is in the behavior of the people with the magnets. No one wants to end up as the ironic punchline in another person's anecdote: "You'll never believe who cut me off on Route 29 today then flipped me the bird: a car with a 'Choose Civility' sticker!"

As cynical as I am, I still see some value in civility bumperstickers and civility campaigns. They force us to think about something that too many of us ignore. And since I believe that most instances of uncivility (even texting in movie theaters) are the result of cluelessness, not malice, anything that causes people to ponder their actions--even if only fleetingly--is worthwhile.

Though it is currently out of car magnets, the campaign is still percolating along in Howard County. The library is sponsoring a "Choose Civility" symposium in October. And they just closed the nomination period for the first-ever "Choose Civility" awards, honors that will include a "Heroic Act of Civility" prize.

Make what you will of the fact that they had to extend the deadline for nominations for a month.

What do you think? Do you live in Howard County? What are your opinions of the "Choose Civility" campaign? Has it made any difference? Leave your thoughts in the Comments section below.

By John Kelly  |  July 28, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Radical Civility  
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The "Choose Civility" posters are too vague and wishy-washy:

I would replace them with some of your concrete suggestions.

Posted by: jimward21 | July 28, 2009 10:39 AM | Report abuse

My poster would read:

The Radical Civility Manifesto

*** PLEASE ***

1. Don't talk on a cell phone or text during a movie.

2. Pick up your dog poop.

3. Take only one Metro or bus seat.

4. Clean up after yourself in the lunch room.

5. Don't let your children bother other restaurant diners.

Posted by: jimward21 | July 28, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Speaking of a DC Alphabet, I came across a Caldecott Honor Book, "Alphabet City", with a similar premise:

Worth a checkout from your local library.

Radical Civility could borrow a page from Howard County and pass out bumper stickers. If Baltimore claims "Charm City", and Philadelphia claims to be the "City of Brotherly Love" why can't DC be "Civil City"? Would give us a standard to aspire to.

Power to the Civil! Stick it to the Rude!

Posted by: jimward21 | July 29, 2009 7:51 AM | Report abuse

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