Making a Face. (M.E.M.O.)

Article excerpt

COUNTENANCES HAVE been much on my mind lately, thanks to the example of the Palo Alto, California, city council. Palo Alto's Web site boasts that the city attracts "highly educated, politically aware and culturally sophisticated" residents, a fact which probably accounts for the incivility of councilors to each other. If the residents were also described as "highly spiritual, religiously aware and faithfully sophisticated," we might expect them to be even more uncivil.

The Palo Altoans voted 9 to 0 to repeal a year-old ordinance that forbade "rude behavior and unflattering personal gestures by council members." Now there are no longer any legal prohibitions against the use of "body language or other nonverbal methods of expressing disagreement or disgust." No more punishment of eye-rolling, frowning or harrumphing, of offensive twitches or defensive yawns.

After a year or so of practice in the minor leagues of city government, council members can try out their renewed rude body language in the AAA league of the strife-torn academy or the major league of congregational and denominational conflict. Councilors could take campus tours and learn lessons in rude gesturing from faculties fighting over tenure or curricular change or voting no-confidence in the president. Both sides--and there always are sides--arm for campus Armageddon, even though people in other campus buildings go about their business not knowing or caring about the uncivil nonverbal encounters next door.

After batting practice on a campus, the councilors can go to churches or synagogues to observe the twitching and yawning, eye-rolling and frowning that qualify congregants for the Hall of Fame of Incivility. Talk to bishops, overseers, superintendents, visitors, fixers or conflict resolvers and they will report on scowls and growls as congregants battle over "contemporary" versus "traditional" worship. …