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Culture Of Decency Takes Conviction, Action



June 18, 2008

A few evenings ago I strolled past Center Church at Main and Gold streets in downtown Hartford. Its pristine steeple remains an expression of another time, though Center Church actually stands as present-day embodiment of welcome and inclusiveness.

People waiting for buses often sit on the front steps of the church. The other evening, empty beverage cups and other litter were strewn about, left by those who had moved on.

I thought: "That's fairly disgusting." Then, reaching for something more elevated, "If we don't all play a role in shaping and asserting values, we don't have a culture." And I kept walking.

Of course right now, the whole world is piling on about what appears wrong with Hartford. The city's former Deputy Mayor Nicholas R. Carbone was assaulted and robbed in broad daylight in a neighborhood he worked to create. Angel Arce Torres was the hit-and-run-and-ignored victim that finally got Hartford the national press attention it really didn't want. Shootings and other violence are reported frequently. And although there are many quiet spots in town that offer refuge, the Hartford Public Library is currently off the A-list after reports of unruly behavior there.

The library's goings-on spoke to a few points:

No.1: If we shrink from articulating cultural expectations, we mess ourselves up.

No.2: There's a difference between "welcoming all people" and "welcoming all behavior."

No.3. Looking for justice, we may have robbed ourselves of direction.

No question discrimination has historically found cover in the misappropriation of social values. But in struggling to right the wrongs of the past, perhaps we've muddled the distinction between who people are and what they do. Following the reports of surprising stuff at the library, there were immediate demands for all kinds of rules, strict enforcement, tons of security devices and abundant phone calls to the police.

The assault on Nick Carbone subsequently underscored the growing sense of Hartford as wildly unsafe, perhaps beyond salvation. The tragedy of Angel Torres, hit by a car on Park Street and seemingly ignored by passers-by, however, suggests something other than just a need for more surveillance cameras.

The robust, virtually global dialogue, now ongoing, is its own message. Outrage is a mechanism of course correction. But outrage that emerges only in the face of utterly horrific events doesn't have abiding value. Elevated to the level of a right and a responsibility; nurtured, refined and positively applied, it is the most fundamental ingredient of social change.

It's the outrage associated with the mundane insults to our daily lives that eventually degrade everything around us. We may stifle it because it is frowned upon, it seems impolite or creates discomfort, but we can't deny it.

It alerts us to all the little missteps that can eventually bring us to the brink. Outrage leads us to question, to challenge, to change. It's there inside us, but it sleeps a lot under the weight of social politeness and disinclination to rock the boat. Then if we don't speak or act or risk, we probably shouldn't be too surprised if things go south.

Without forgetting our history, we can find and assert our values, not as mechanisms of oppression, but as the foundation of a society that really takes care of people a culture of decency. When every one of us speaks and acts, we all get to shape that culture; one that reflects each of our voices, each of our deeds. But decency has an off switch: indifference.

We don't know exactly what happened on Park Street in Hartford. Whatever happened, stories emerged. In these stories there is reason for hope. The stories are allegories that remind us, on the deepest level, of how we regard indifference: with outrage. Hartford is the current setting for this cautionary tale: the parable of "indifference," a reminder to care about things and to act to make things better.

The other night when I walked past the trash on the steps of Center Church I was outraged. But I didn't take it to the next step. I don't mean calling the mayor and insisting on anti-litter SWAT teams. I didn't do what I could have done myself, then. I didn't pick the stuff up. Next time I will.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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