by Matt Mattson
Our world is desperate for more civility!
Just look at today’s news (literally, whenever “today” is for you, dear reader). On the “today” of writing this post, the media outlets were dumbfounded by The President’s use of obscene language in a public speech. And across the Atlantic, the people of The United Kingdom are protesting in the streets about Brexit. Your “today” is probably different than mine, but I’m guessing you’ll find similar evidence of a need for a more civil world on newsstands right now.
We must re-introduce civility into our collective social contract.
Did you know that, according to a recent poll, a majority of Americans say incivility is a major problem?
Did you know that, according to another recent poll, a majority of Americans fear our country’s incivility crisis will lead to violence?
What Did Gandhi Think?
I don't want to be the guy who tries to boil everything in life down to a Gandhi quote, but this refrain from Mahatma was too good to pass up...
"Civility does not ...mean the mere outward gentleness of speech cultivated for the occasion, but an inborn gentleness and desire to do the opponent good."
Civility (and for that matter, this message of "Social Excellence" that we've been teaching for a long time) is not about the little outward tactics to make interpersonal communication easier or smoother. It's not about being polite, making friends, or obeying oppressive cultural norms. It's not about that stuff to me anyway. Civility is understanding how to relate to others (and making interpersonal communication choices) for the benefit of society.
All for One; One for All
One of the two TED talks linked at the bottom of this post (the one by Steven Petrow) offers this definistion of civility that is fantastic, “Citizens willing to give of themselves for the good of the city.” He talks of the latin root of the word civil, and it’s connection with the greater society.
Similarly, when we’ve written about the concept of Social Excellence, we’ve noted the two latin roots of the word “Social.”
Socius: referring to friendship, interpersonal connection, and communication skills.
Socialis: referring to society, social justice, and the greater good.
The idea of civility, and indeed the idea of Social Excellence as we teach it, is about far more than simply being respectful, kind, and tolerant. It is about doing these things (and more) so that one can make the world a better place.
More On Gandhi’s Quote
Gandhi talks about two things in his famous quote about civility. 1) "an inborn gentleness" and 2) a "desire to do the opponent good."
Let's explore these, shall we?
An Inborn Gentleness
Perhaps sincere civility is born from our hearts, not our minds. Perhaps sincere civility is the practical application of the Greek concept of "agape," or "love for everyone." Perhaps it is important to also differentiate "sincere civility" from contrived, manipulative, or oppressive civility. Because the requirement of particular decorum, the deft employment of manners to beguile others, and the slick use of etiquette are powerful weapons that have been wielded by society’s elite for millenia. Gandhi’s quote reminds us that true civility is a virtue that flows from the innate goodness of humanity. An “inborn gentleness” that one must assume Gandhi believed all humans posessed.
A Desire To Do The Opponent Good
I love this part of the Gandhi quote. It kind of surprises you if you’re not ready for it. He suggests that being civil requires selflessness. This line eliminates being “polite,” “tolerant,” or merely “respectful” as synonyms to civility. Gandhi suggests that our desire (read: intention) must be to benefit the opponent!
There is so much to unpack here. First, the admission that civility requires an opponent. And it’s o.k. to call them our opponent. It’s o.k. to admit disagreement, to acknowledge dissent, and to honor their alternative point of view. Secondly, I interpret and extrapolate this line to suggest that if our intention is to do good for our opponent, by extension, or intention must be to make all of society better.
A Challenge To Be A Civil Citizen
This comes directly from this NPR Article that inspired much of this post:
"Civility is the baseline of respect that we owe one another in public life," says Keith Bybee, the author of How Civility Works. "And when people talk about a crisis in civility, they usually are reporting their sense that there is not a shared understanding of what that baseline of respect ought to be."
We’re losing our shared understanding of the social baseline. We’re desperate for new, modern, relevant rules that reflect the values of today and tomorrow, not just the expectations of a yesteryear gone by. We need standards we can all agree upon about how to productively engage with one another in a civil way — for the benefit of society.
I invite you to explore this related post on Social Transformation. As I’ve been exploring civility, this post that I wrote a while ago keeps coming to mind. Perhaps the “rules” outlined in that post are useful as we seek the modern application of “civility” in today’s world.
Be civil, people. Our world needs it from you.
Watch These Related TED Talks
[Quick note: A bunch of this post was inspired by this NPR article and the fact that I've been asked to speak about civility at my church this Sunday!]