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Richard Kyte: Thank the public servants in your community
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Richard Kyte: Thank the public servants in your community

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MUG -- Richard Kyte

Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., and co-host of "The Ethical Life" podcast.

You have probably read stories from across the country about school board members resigning. Some fear for their personal safety after receiving threats. Others are just tired of receiving abuse. They signed up to serve their local schools and to help kids get a better education, not to be shouted at.

Schools are having a hard time recruiting teachers, principals and superintendents. I heard one high school administrator talking about the challenge of replacing a science teacher at the beginning of the school year. She said it was like trying to find a unicorn.

Last month a 70-year-old school bus driver in Texas was assaulted by an angry parent. A similar incident occurred a few days ago in upstate New York. When a bus driver gets punched in the face, it makes the news. What does not make the news are milder forms of abuse taking place regularly: the shouting, the comments, the insults. It all takes a toll.

Many of the recent high-profile altercations are occasioned by disputes over school mask mandates. But that is merely the occasion, not the cause, of the outrage. Public rudeness is itself an epidemic, and it has been getting worse for years.

The National Federation of State High School Associations started a recruitment effort for high school referees in 2017 because 80% were quitting after two years. Dana Pappas, the new Director of Officiating Services for NFHS, issued a statement on the referee shortage: “There are still people who are going after sports officials after games, during games, and it continues to be an adult problem. I don’t think too many of the issues we see are really the kids. It’s generally the spectators.”

It is not just in education that we are seeing rude behavior drive good people away. Local officials are resigning from positions on city councils and county boards. Law enforcement officers are resigning or taking early retirement in record numbers. Police officer retirements across the nation increased 45 percent last year.

One of the privileges of living in a free country is the freedom to criticize public servants. The freedom to criticize is not only a right, it also is a duty when done respectfully. It is the way we point out problems, offer suggestions and work together to make things better.

But the right to criticize, like any right, can be abused. One angry citizen at an Arizona school board meeting shouted, “It's my constitutional right to be as mean as I want to you guys.” Which just goes to show how wrong a person can be in expressing a right.

When we drive away public-spirited people, we are left with those motivated by other things. The result is that our public institutions become weaker, not stronger.

I am convinced that most people do not like what is happening in our society. They do not like the growing polarization, the public rudeness, the assumption that the only way to change policies is by public shaming or physical force.

When it comes to public behavior, we encourage whatever we tolerate. The more rudeness is seen, the more it is perceived to be normal and acceptable.

But telling a nincompoop to sit down and shut up rarely does any good. It’s like wrestling a pig: You both get covered in mud, and the pig likes it.

There is a better way.

Research has shown that it takes five positive comments to overcome the effect of one negative comment.

Those of us who wish to see a return to civic flourishing need to express our appreciation for those who donate their time and energy to the public good. If you are sick of the corrosive nature of our political discourse, if you are worried about the legacy of civic dysfunction we are leaving to our children and grandchildren, make your gratitude visible.

Take a moment to send a thank-you note to a member of your local school board or city council.

When you see a police officer, give them a smile and a wave (using all your fingers).

If you are a parent at a child’s sporting event, inspire those around you to give a standing ovation to the officials. Without them, your kids would not be able to play at all.

Talk to the people you know about creating a servant leader award to recognize those who tend to go unnoticed but who perform some vital public function in your community. Every city, town and township ought to find a way to celebrate lives of quiet service and dedication.

When the nincompoops who jeer and curse see decent people standing up in appreciation for the public servants we all depend on, they will be reminded that they are not speaking for the majority. Perhaps they will see their actions as the small-minded, self-serving, contemptible behavior that it is. At least they might be more inclined to keep their corrosive twaddle confined to their own heads, where it will harm nobody but themselves.

Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., and co-host of “The Ethical Life” podcast.

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