Respect your fellow citizens, maintain a civil tone, be courteous and polite… all of these are well and good. I support them wholeheartedly.
Unfortunately, telling people to improve their table manners or to put the trash in the waste basket is not enough to improve civility.
It takes something more. And the something more is often absent from all of the calls for civility.
That something more is a penalty for incivility. Cultures that value civility have strict sanctions for incivility. Behave badly and you are shamed, shunned, or publicly embarrassed.
Shaming promotes civility; guilt does not.
In a shame culture, a culture that values civility, you are not going to be indicted or prosecuted for spitting or jaywalking, but you are going to be held up to public ridicule. When your name or face appears in the local newspaper, your reputation as a good citizen, a model of civility, will suffer serious damage.
Nowadays, this is what has been happening in the city of Wuhan, China. There, the local newspaper, the Wuhan Daily News has been publishing the names and the faces of those whose behavior is egregiously uncivil. Link here.
Right now, the list is limited to those who run red lights, park haphazardly, jaywalk, or litter.
Why this new concern for civility?
The local authorities were so impressed by the outbreak of civil behavior in Japan after the recent earthquake and tsunami, that they felt ashamed of the bad behavior of their own citizens. So they decided that they would do something to tamp down incivility.
Of course, some consider that the government is misusing its power, by keeping too close a watch on public behavior.
But, public behavior is, by definition, public. The government is not putting hidden cameras into everyone’s dining room to find out who chews with his mouth open.
Surely, the issue is subject to debate. We Americans have laws against littering and jaywalking. I doubt that they are ever enforced.
Thus, they serve a non-purpose. Since they do not stop littering and jaywalking, they teach people that there is no real price to be paid for breaches of decorum.
In smaller communities people are more likely to behave civilly in public. When everyone knows everyone else, people who litter and jaywalk cannot remain anonymous. When your good name and your public reputation are on the line, you are more likely to behave better.
The officials in Wuhan are applying the rules of a small community to a larger city.
They understood that people are more likely to behave civilly if there is a sanction for incivility. Telling people to do the right thing does not suffice.