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Civility 101: do unto otters



Review of Do Unto Otters by Laurie Keller (New York: Henry Holt and Company LLC, 2007).

Shrillness, vitriol, and a distinct lack of civility characterize much of our public discussion in America these days.  America is torn and tense.

Public hate

One example is that the topic of Islam in public discussion has become almost radioactive.  A jolting, disturbing reminder spread across the internet last week in video footage of loud, rude, and at times vicious anti-Muslim protesters who held a rally in February at a mosque in Yorba Linda, California. This was on an evening when the mosque was holding a fundraiser to support relief and charity work in the U.S.  (There were over 600,000 views of this “Hate Comes to Orange County” video on YouTube before it was removed due to a copyright dispute.)  And Rep. Peter King’s hearings on Islamic radicalization in America have been the focus of intensely polarized—and not particularly civil—national debate.

How we proceed will have an impact both domestically and abroad.  At home we need to decide whether to strengthen or to rip apart the fabric of our own society.  Abroad, what we are at home determines how we look in the world’s eyes. If we are hateful to others at home, we dare not be surprised if others are hateful towards us abroad.

The stakes are high.  We would do well to take stock of what is happening to fundamental public civility in our country.

I offer a proposal that may sound unusual, but if an unusual route is what it takes to restore at least some level of public civility, so be it (or so “bee” it, as is the case in my recommendation).


Public civility, advises the wise owl

I propose that we turn to a rabbit, some otters, and an owl for a useful lesson.

In her book Do Unto Otters (A Book About Manners), talented author and illustrator Laurie Keller offers us a way to return to public civility and vibrant, peaceful pluralism.  Such civility and pluralism have at other times have been among the core strengths of our society.  We have done this before.  We can, if we want to, do it again.

I am well aware that reviewing a book about a goofy bunny, a polka-dot-trouser-wearing otter, and a bow-tie wearing owl, along with some funky bees, may seem like an unusual response to the ugly vitriol that played out in Yorba Linda in February and is playing out now as the nation debates Congressman King’s hearings.  Of course I don’t view Keller’s book as any kind of panacea for our very serious troubles today.  Do Unto Otters, does, however, show a way to return to civility, and it reminds us that we can be civil to others who are different—without having to sacrifice who we are in the process.

I think widespread reading of Keller’s book Do Unto Otters would be one of the best things that could happen to America today.

Calling all kids: please read this book to your parents!

Mr. Rabbit’s confrontation with “the otter”

In Keller’s book, Mr. Rabbit lives in a tree in the forest on the banks of a pretty river.  One day he arrives home to discover that a family of otters has decided to move in next door.

Before he has even met them, Mr. Rabbit gasps in a panicked horror, “OTTERS?  OTTERS?  My new neighbors are OTTERS!  I don’t know anything about otters.”  He goes on to imagine the worst from this new predicament, as Keller’s funny illustrations make abundantly clear.

Mr. Rabbit has no idea what to do.  Wise Mr. Owl then offers Mr. Rabbit a way to approach this seemingly scary situation of having to live next door to a new, strange type of neighbor: “Do unto otters as you would have otters do unto you.”

Mr. Owl invites his hare-brained pal to consider how he, a rabbit, would like otters to treat him.  Mr Rabbit seems taken aback by this approach to his pending crisis, as I suspect the readers of this review may be taken aback by approaching some of the serious tensions in our society today though a children’s book.  Upon further reflection, Mr. Rabbit gives Mr. Owl’s approach a try.

That’s lesson number one: It can’t hurt to try.

Mr. Rabbit’s other approach

Mr. Rabbit tells Mr. Owl that he would like otters to be “friendly…polite…honest…considerate…kind…[to] cooperate… to play fair…to share…[not to] tease… [to] apologize…and be forgiving.”  For each of these Keller offers charming, very amusing illustrated scenes of Mr. Rabbit imagining what such behavior would look like.

Yes, the book is heavy on levity—all the more reason to recommend this not only for children but also for adults.

That’s lesson number two: A little silliness won’t kill us.  But hatred and fury could.  We need to find another way to handle living together and discussing our shared public future together in our diverse population.

In the end, importantly, Mr. Rabbit discovers he does not need to become an otter, and the new otters in his neighborhood do not need to become rabbits, for all of them to get along.  Instead, with basic mutual civility and considerateness, they can live side by side with their differences.  And not just that. When these different creatures find a way to treat each other with mutual decency and fairness, they discover they can even play together.

To be sure, Do Unto Otters is not an alternative to complex and vital discussions about religion and politics; no, we need to have these discussions.

However, what Keller’s book does provide is a guidebook for how we have these discussions and how we live side by side constructively with, not in spite of, our differences.  Her book provides us a way to maneuver through these differences.

Given the tone of our current public discussions and public protests, I think a return to basics could serve us well, doing unto others, including otters, as you would have done unto you.

Jennifer S. Bryson is Director of the Islam and Civil Society Project at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ and editor of the Marvel, Believe, Care Coloring Book.

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