In the mid-1990s it became evident to Forni, and many others as well, that civility was in retreat in America. Surliness was rife among waiters and clerks, customers, too; movies and TV were shot through with filthy language, reiterated by young people in school. Road rage emerged as a specific problem. Forni reached a conclusion: "I needed to concern myself with things that had more direct relevance to everyday life than 14th-century Italian prose." Thus, he acquired an avocation, which since has done nothing but grow.
Forni teaches a course he calls "Italian Matters, Italian Manners," the latest in a string of similar ones offered since his attention turned toward the disintegration of polite society. "We look at books of manners that had been produced in Italy in different centuries to understand the culture that produced them," he says, referring to tomes such as "The Book of the Courtier," by Baldesar Castiglione, and "Galateo," by Giovanni Della Casa, courtesy books from times past.
It sounds so ivory-towerish, considering that the professor, comfortable in his office on Hopkins' verdant campus, is far removed from the coarseness he is trying to smooth out, in this city so afflicted by violence.
So what do civility and manners have to do with all of that? Where's the relevance?
The professor doesn't bristle. He doesn't smile, either. His initial answer doesn't satisfy him, so later he e-mails a reformulation: "Acts of violence are often the result of an exchange of acts of rudeness that spiral out of control. Disrespect can lead to bloodshed. By keeping the levels of incivility down we keep the levels of violence down.... If we teach youngsters in all walks of life how to manage conflict with civility-based relational skills, we will have a less uncivil society, a less violent one."
So, his efforts go beyond measuring the level of boorishness that abounds these days. The Civility Project has assembled an archive of several thousand articles, books, and papers on the subject– not merely to convey the significance of ancient books on manners. Forni operates in the here and now: He is practical; he can teach you how to behave in the office, on the highway, at dinner parties, and in those uncomfortable moments when you are in proximity to, say, a lout at a concert.