By Liz Massey, March 12, 2015.

As we journey through another spring training season in the Valley this month, I’m reminded, as I sit in my car at stoplights, just how crazy our traffic is in the winter. This season has been particularly bad. We’ve seen the usual holiday-inspired desperation moves at malls and big-box retailers, suffered through the annual jams related to the Phoenix Open and the Barrett-Jackson car auction, and had the traffic craziness of the Super Bowl and Pro Bowl thrown in for good measure.

We all mostly grin and bear traffic snarls in the winter, but Arizona’s accident statistics are no laughing matter. The Arizona Department of Motor Vehicles’ car crash fact sheet for 2013 notes that a fatal accident happened in the state on average of every 10 hours during that year, and a non-fatal accident took place every 10 minutes.

Why all the wrecks? One reason, I believe, is that we’ve lost the concept of “defensive driving,” a situation in which a driver focuses his or her total attention on the road, looking out for both himself or herself and others he or she may encounter. If you took a driver’s ed class in high school, this is what your instructors were trying to instill. It’s driving with courtesy, foresight and mindfulness.

The demise of defensive driving parallels our country’s accelerating descent into a heavily polarized, increasingly rude society. Last year, a survey by the marketing agency Weber Shandwick indicated that nearly two-thirds of Americans across varying age groups agreed that incivility had risen to crisis levels. Those surveyed blamed everyone from politicians to sports figures for making the situation worse, which to me says that we’re seeing rudeness modeled for us everywhere.

In addition to frequently being on the receiving end of some of the rudest, most uncivil behavior imaginable, our LGBT community also struggles with rudeness among the groups that form the letters of our acronym, and even from people residing under the umbrella of our own letter. If you confronted some of those uncivil folks, they would probably respond by saying that being aggressive or abrasive is necessary to survive in a contentious, harsh world. What they may not realize is that it is possible to be civil without being submissive.

Martin Luther King Jr. used vigorous, but not violent, words and actions to spur change during the Civil Rights Era. Harvey Milk harnessed the power of the ballot box to be elected as an openly gay city supervisor and built coalitions with other groups to empower the queer population of San Francisco in the 1970s. The key to retaining one’s personal power when acting courteously is to realize that whatever solutions you propose need to include everyone.

Author P. M. Forni, in his book Choosing Civility, proposed 25 rules for promoting polite social behavior. (Most of them also could improve our driving if followed in the car.) Some of them seem especially important for promoting civil advocacy and smoothing out daily social interactions, especially his admonitions to:

• Pay attention. A lot of rudeness results from being oblivious to one’s environment.

• Acknowledge others. You don’t have to agree with them, or

even like them, to do so.

• Be inclusive. The people to whom we are rude will continue to exist. Finding a way to interact that doesn’t intentionally exclude them is practical, as well as good karma.

• Respect others’ time and space. Rude driving violates the laws of physics, forcing two cars to be in the same place at the same time. Using a similar dynamic, socially rude behavior forces us into the personal emotional space of others in an inappropriate way.

• Constructive criticism. A lot of supposedly “brutally honest” criticism is just plain caustic. I can’t see any motive to connect with the person being criticized and help them improve their performance. It’s fine to have an opinion on something, but would you want your creation or actions to be run through the proverbial shredder in the same way you take others to task?

• Don’t shift responsibility. This is the root of civil behavior, as well as the Golden Rule. Being able to own our own thoughts, actions, and role in social interactions is crucial to being able to create an environment where treating everyone with respect is second nature.

No matter how we may have been victimized by people and institutions for being LGBT, focusing on civility in our advocacy and our daily lives isn’t just a “nice to have” item. It’s a “must have.” It’s the only way to produce a society that isn’t just as destructive as the one we are seeking to transform.

As Forni explains: “Civility means a great deal more than just being nice to one another. It is complex, and encompasses learning how to connect successfully and live well with others. ... Taking an active interest in the well-being of our community and concern for the health of our society is also involved in civility.”

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Photo courtesy of Michael Feinstein.

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