Record Newspaper

By Paul Aronsohn

Incivility. It seems all too common these days. The aggressive driver who tailgates you on the turnpike. The angry parent who berates the coach. The hostile resident who hurls personal attacks at public meetings. The anonymous commenter who spews hatred on the Internet. The rude government official who speaks in dismissive tones. The governor who admonishes the heckler to “sit down and shut up.”

These people and these behaviors have become all too familiar. And, sadly, they have become all too accepted. Rudeness seems normal. Civility appears optional.

To be sure, this lack of civility is not standard practice. Most people don’t act this way. Most people open doors, are polite and treat others with respect.

But the seeming increase in incivility is very real and is very destructive. It is tearing at the fabric of communities. We not only see it on TV and read about it in newspapers. We live it in our own lives. In fact, at times, it may be we who are using the bad language, exhibiting the bad behavior, making the bad decisions.

In Ridgewood, we have acknowledged this and have decided to do something about it.

Recently, community leaders and members of the public came together to discuss the need for more civility in our public discourse. Government officials. Educators. Clergy. Organizational leaders. Parents. The group represented somewhat of a cross-section of our village.

It was a timely event — coming in the wake of one of the nastiest election seasons ever — and it was an appropriate event, being held in a town known for its profound sense of commu-nity.

At the meeting, people shared a variety of views. Some said there is too much incivility in Ridgewood, while others said everything is basically fine. Some focused on behavior at public meetings, while others focused on behavior at youth sports events. Some spoke of people’s anger and hostility, while others spoke of people’s fears. Most, however, seemed to agree that incivility is the exception to the rule in Ridgewood, but regardless, most seemed to agree that we need to address it – head on.

Hence, their participation in the meeting.

Going forward, our plan is to reconvene the group in mid-January. Our discussion will concentrate on ways in which we can and should take this conversation forward.

Beyond Ridgewood, we are seeing additional reasons to be optimistic. In Washington, since the November election, we have heard more talk about bipartisanship coming from President Obama and Republican leaders. In Bergen, incoming County Executive James Tedesco ran a campaign centered on “bringing Bergen together again” and promising a less combative style to governance. And local officials and residents — most recently in Hackensack — are actively exploring ways to bring civility back into public life.

Ultimately, I believe we need to create a “new normal” with respect to the way we treat each other. More civility. More respect. Disagreement is fine and often good, but we need to disagree without being disagreeable.

We need to raise the bar with respect to acceptable conduct and take our public discourse to a higher level. That means community leaders and parents modeling appropriate behavior. That means everyone — individually as well as collectively — stepping back, taking a deep breath and realizing that we are stronger and better when we work together.

Although incivility is nothing new, it seems that 2009 was a pivotal year that began a steady decline. That year, a congressman from South Carolina broke tradition and yelled out during a presidential address to a joint session of Congress — effectively calling the president of the United States a liar. It was also in that year that New Jersey elected a governor who felt it was fine to vilify public workers, talk down to reporters and shout down residents at town meetings.

Now, five years later, it is time for us to declare that enough is enough. Our period of incivility must come to an end. We are better than this. We deserve better than this.

Paul Aronsohn is mayor of Ridgewood.