Civility is key to social interactions.
I previously mentioned that trust is the currency of social interactions, but civility provides the interweaving fabric that keep us together. Without civility, social discourse completely deteriorates.1 Without social discourse being civil, we accept and perpetuate name-calling and demeaning language that belittles our fellow citizens and fellow humans.
Civility comes from the word civis, which in Latin means “citizen”, and civility is defined as conduct characterized by courtesy or politeness or a polite act. Name-calling serves no useful purpose and only serves to dehumanize our fellow citizens.
When people are belittled, demeaned and/or demonized, we all suffer. We can disagree with folks, but when we treat them in an uncivil manner, we set ourselves up as the arbiters of right and wrong and can easily see others as not worthy of our attention. We can therefore feel that any “power” that accrues from our righteous stand allows us subjugate others.
I would argue that our treatment of children and families seeking refuge at the border is due to such an approach. These vulnerable people are too easily made to feel less than human. When we do that, we fall into the trap that immigrants (as non-Americans) do not deserve conduct characterized by courtesy or politeness. They can be shoved aside, they can all be seen as “murderers or rapists,” their families can be separated, and we can rationalize our behavior. We are good, and they are bad. These vulnerable families might be of the same faith but somehow, we lose sight of our own faith and our responsibility to others. How could this happen?
Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson recently reflected on the corrosiveness of the lack of civility in our society.2 “Over the past few years, [there has been] promoted the belief that a large share of the American people are endlessly productive of plots, frauds and hoaxes, that they are not to be heard out in good faith, not to be acknowledged as enjoying the freedoms of the First Amendment. This is the aspersion, the fraud, the hoax most corrosive to democracy. Once a significant part of the population takes it to be true that other groups or classes do not participate legitimately in the political life of the country, democracy is in trouble. The public has no way to legitimize authority, which then becomes mere power… Resentment displaces hope and purpose the way carbon monoxide displaces air. This fact has been reflected in the policies of any number of tyrants and demagogues. Resentment is insatiable. It thrives on deprivation, sustaining itself by magnifying grievances it will, by its nature, never resolve.”
We can disagree with folks, but when we treat them in an uncivil manner, we set ourselves up as the arbiters of right and wrong and can easily see others as not worthy of our attention. Click To Tweet
When we always see others as our enemy (certainly seen during previous and current political election cycles), we do not seek consensus or a common purpose. We see ourselves as right and we see others as wrong. The labels (Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative) do nothing to advance our common goals. I refuse to accept the divisiveness currently advanced as agendas are promoted. Yet as noted by Marilynne Robinson, when others are accused of plots, frauds and hoaxes, they are treated as not worthy of our attention.
This is so commonly done by conspiracy theorists when they readily accept lies. They argue that others are not legitimate, and their issues are not legitimate. I agree with Ms. Robinson that such a stance poisons our democracy going forward. Without rational discourse (without civility), we are headed down a dangerous path. And for civility to pack any punch, truthfulness is critical.3 Lies feed into the work of tyrants, demagogues, and conspiracy theorists and provide the fuel for continued incivility.
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Maintaining civility in our other relationships is equally important to maintaining trust in our interactions. Those interactions can be in almost any social setting (at work, at a place of business, at a store, at a school, at a restaurant, over the phone, on a virtual internet connection) and immediately set the tone for the ongoing dialogue that defines social interaction. Social interactions are a back-and-forth, give-and-take proposition during which we exchange information and hopefully seek some common solution to a given question or situation. Our ability to maintain civility will often define our ability to be understood, to be trusted and to be effective. It is a process involving education.
Education is not only the acquisition of facts but the acquisition of the skills to lead a life of consequence. These are not separate processes but should be combined as we seek to prepare our children for their roles as parents and citizens in the years ahead. When these processes are not melded with civil discourse, the messages get blurred or totally lost and are thereby ineffective. I view education a critical piece of this civility fabric of our society and argue that education with civility makes progress and education without civility takes us backward and erodes public trust.
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I am also reminded of the work of Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative.4 He has argued quite eloquently that the opposite of poverty is not wealth but that the opposite of poverty is justice. When injustice reigns, we have reached an enhanced state of uncivil behavior. That can only be reversed when we use all means possible—interpersonal, social, professional and educational—to re-engage in a civil yet meaningful fashion.
Our ability to maintain civility needs constant attention. Treating each other as we want others to treat us is so important. How did we lose track of this basic principle of a civil society? I contend that we know better but have gotten caught up in the heat of rhetoric that does not serve us well. Those of faith can never let themselves be so swayed. Complicity (being an accomplice in uncivil behavior or wrong-doing by turning the other way or quiet acceptance) is as bad as being the primary wrong doer. Disagreement is ok but never, ever, lose the integrity of engaging each other in a civil manner.
Labels (Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative) do nothing to advance our common goals. Click To Tweet
Before closing, let’s revisit a quote above – Resentment displaces hope and purpose the way carbon monoxide displaces air. It is hard to overstate the importance of this quote. When we let resentment pervade our atmosphere of discourse, hope and purpose are displaced by the noxious (and potentially lethal) equivalent of carbon monoxide in the air that we share with each other. We will have poisoned our common breeze and replaced it with a tempest and its accompanying ill wind. Resentment leads to bitterness and quickly deteriorates from there. Hope and purpose deserve their fair share of interpersonal energy if we are to maintain civility for the common good.