Monday, September 21, 2009

Civility



As the political discourse around me continues to heat up, I find that I have been surprised by the form that our national debate has taken. I am stunned at what I perceive is a complete lack of desire by anyone on any side to truly reach others with a different opinion. No one wants to explain their position, describe why they think that way, cite the evidence that they have gathered to support their conclusion. No one wants to educate anyone. I have not only been surprised by this, but also by the anger of my fellow citizens when engaged in discussions with parties of differing opinions. And to be honest, I have mostly been surprised - and frankly quite hurt - by those closest to me, for their swift anger and immediate descent into name calling and belittling, rather than discussion, education, intellectual debate and understanding. I am stunned that those who know me well, even members of my family, jump to conclusions and use hateful language to disparage me personally – while never taking time to discuss their position, their reasoning, their perspective – and also never taking a moment of time to understand mine.

And this, dear friend, has me reflecting on Civility. Not something that I am an expert on, I assure you. This is an area where I have much to learn. But civility is also something that I am very concerned about; something that I believe in.

There are many educators, writers, speakers, and philosophers who have attempted to build a solid working definition of civility, and I am reading multiple books and articles as I think things through and do research. What has happened to civil engagement, and how do we live now, in this day and time, in this complex world, without it? I have read blog entries where a given author has decided to stay home and limit his interaction with others because of the increasing lack of civility in his/her environment. Is disengagement the answer? I have been given advice from well meaning friends and relatives, “Just don’t talk about anything controversial. Just talk about the weather.” Is the answer really to never understand another point of view? The media has devoted article after article to discussion on the “coarsening” of America. As one might expect, there has been plenty of finger-pointing and lots of blame aimed at parents, schools, educators, communities, politics, and society as whole for the lessening of our civil behavior. P. M. Forni, co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, has written a book titled “Choosing Civility,” wherein he concludes that civility is complex, good, has to do with courtesy and manners, and belongs in the realm of ethics.

Here is an excerpt from the second chapter of his book, reflecting on the complexity of defining civility. “Courtesy, politeness, manners, and civility are all, in essence, forms of awareness. Being civil means being constantly aware of others and weaving restraint, respect, and consideration into the very fabric of awareness. Civility is a form of goodness; it is gracious goodness. But it is not just an attitude of benevolent and thoughtful relating to other individuals; it also entails an active interest in the well-being of our communities and even a concern for the health of the planet on which we live.

Saying “please” and “thank you”; lowering our voice whenever it may threaten or interfere with others’ tranquility; raising funds for a neighborhood renovation program; acknowledging a newcomer to the conversation; welcoming a new neighbor; listening to understand and help; respecting those different from us; responding with restraint to a challenge; properly disposing of a piece of trash left by someone else; properly disposing of dangerous industrial pollutants; acknowledging our mistakes; refusing to participate in malicious gossip; making a new pot of coffee for the office machine after drinking the last cup; signaling our turns when driving; yielding our seat on a bus whenever it seems appropriate; alerting the person sitting behind us on a plane when we are about to lower the back of our seat; standing close to the right-side handrail on an escalator; stopping to give directions to someone who is lost; stopping at red lights; disagreeing with poise; yielding with grace when losing an argument, these diverse behaviors are all imbued with the spirit of civility.”

Despite this complexity I am committed to becoming ever more civil. I believe that we must learn how to live together. We must learn how to agree – and how to disagree. We must together learn how to not only be courteous, but also how to be good friends, good neighbors, good citizens.

4 comments:

Chrissie said...

You're getting a standing ovation from me! Though I hardly know you at all, what I do know for sure is that you already embody these principles in your dealings with others - I have been fortunate to be a frequent recipient of your thoughtful 'civility'.

NancyB said...

May I simply say AMEN!@!!

ZudaGay said...

I agree with NancyB, Amen! But I think I understand what is causing the anger and argumentativeness. People are either scared, and fear causes people to be angry. Or it is that they are so sure their views are indisputably correct so that there is no other way that will work which causes them to be afraid what will happen if things go the other way...hummm, fear! There are a lot of very scared people who probably don't realize they are scared. We need to be quick to listen, slow to speak and very slow to become angry. :)

Paula Paul said...

I can understand that fear and anger are driving forces behind some of this behavior, but I don't accept them as excuses. I accept name calling and emotional outburts from my young children - have we forgotten how to be adults? Responsible adults know that name calling and hateful words don't solve problems. Responsible adults are in touch with their emotions and have figured out healthy outlets for their anger. It's tough to be an adult in difficult discussions, but there is no excuse to behave otherwise.

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