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Let's talk about incivility - please

THE EXCHANGE only took a moment - but it was one of those moments that bothers you all day.

The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization was holding a press conference in Nurses Hall, on the second floor of the State House, to praise the state's new healthcare legislation.

Up on the third floor, meanwhile, several dozen protesters from the Plainridge Racecourse were gathered outside House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi's office.

The track had closed temporarily because its simulcasting rights had expired, the victim of a standoff between the House and the Senate. Chants of ''Save Our Jobs'' hopelessly overwhelmed the GBIO event taking place below.

I happened to be standing nearby when Felix Unogwu, an organizer for the GBIO, politely asked a burly man exhorting the racetrack backers on if they could quiet their protest for a few minutes.

''Get the (expletive) out of here,'' the man snarled, brushing hostilely by.

''It was a shock,'' Unogwu said later. ''Being in the State House, where we are all trying to do things the right way, and having someone come in with so much violence, so much temper, kind of surprised me.''

Me, too. But it's hardly the only episode of incivility I've witnessed recently. A couple of weekends ago, I was standing on Boylston Street, enjoying a day of unseasonably warm weather, when one of those horse carriages for hire came clippety-clopping along like something right out of a Childe Hassam painting.

It was almost enough to induce a roseate reverie about Boston's horse-drawn past. Until the carriage drew near, that is, whereupon its driver looked over and excoriated a motorist who, in trying to parallel park, had temporarily blocked her lane.

Walking home on another recent day, I saw a car with a note stuck under a wiper.

I'm always interested in communications that pass that way, so I unfolded the paper, to read this neighborly sentiment: ''If you ever take up two spaces again, I'll destroy your car.''

Now, it's true the vehicle was planted square in the middle of a spot that could have fit two, so perhaps a polite missive might have pointed out that there was a better way to park.

But what kind of person leaves a threat like that? And what sort of person F-bombs someone making a reasonable, respectful request of him?

When you see that kind of thing - or witness a traffic tiff escalate into a road-rage race along narrow city streets, as I did on another evening - you're left wondering why our civic mood sometimes seems so ugly.

And as someone whose e-mail address appears beneath his column, I'm regularly amazed at the billingsgate people fling when they let their fingers do the talking.

It all made me think of Pat Guerriero, who, back in the late 1990s, during his days as mayor of Melrose, launched a campaign to combat incivility. In his current role as president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a national gay and lesbian grass-roots organization, he sometimes experiences abuse firsthand.

Take, for example, what happened to him last October, when he spoke at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

''I was discussing the need for people to stop yelling at each other and start talking,'' he recounted in a telephone interview. ''At around that time, someone ran toward the stage and threw a cream pie at me.''

Guerriero faked left and moved right - just like in politics, he quips - getting a splattering but avoiding a direct hit. His humor emerged intact.

''I told the audience it was a Boston cream pie,'' he recalls.

A staffer at Log Cabin later e-mailed me a sampling of some of the messages the group has received over the last few years.

Here's one from their file of hate mail from the left.

''Every time I hear the words gay Republicans I want to vomit. You people are a disgrace to gay men and women everywhere.''

And here's one of their hate-mail highlights from the right.

''I'm so glad President Bush is going to win. I have the utmost confidence He [sic] will fight you filthy perverts with all his power. You will burn in Hell when you die.''

One lesson he learned in Melrose, Guerriero says, is that ''you can't legislate or mandate civility, but you can put a spotlight on the growing level of coarseness and vulgarity.''

''If people could put a camera on themselves and look at their daily lives, their level of vulgarity, what they are like in a car, I think it would shock a lot of them,'' he says. ''A lot of us could take our behavior up a notch.''

But incivility has become so commonplace that no one even confronts it anymore, says Guerriero, who concludes: ''The first thing we need to do is talk about it.”

Today's column is my small attempt to nudge that conversation along.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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