Thursday, February 3, 2011

What Is Civility?

For the past few weeks, everyone has been paying lip service to civility. If that were all we needed, we would now be awash in civility.

Of course, we do not feel more civil. We feel like we have been sprayed with the byproducts of excessive lip service: spittle and drool.

There’s no civility in that.

Nor is there any civility in lecturing people about the need for civility. If you want people to be more civil, set a good example. As John Podhoretz pointed out, when the crowd at the memorial service cheers raucously, it is not a civil moment.

Let’s start over, by trying to understand what civility is. Right now, most people think it’s just another word for nice. They think that civil is the opposite of angry.

On both counts, they are seriously mistaken. Which may explain why we are not very civil.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with anger. Sometimes anger is the only right emotion. And you don’t always need to keep it to yourself.

If a politician promises one thing and delivers another, he has defrauded you. If you do not feel even a twinge of anger, you are a clod.

Aristotle said that the right anger is found at the mean between too much and too little anger. If your anger is proportionate, you should express it civilly. That means, Aristotle says, expressing it: “to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right aim, and in the right way….”

If you lose control of the emotion and fail to express it within the confines of polite discourse, you are not being civil.

Kind and nice are not always civil and are not always right. If someone attacks you, physically or morally, responding with kindness is not civil; it is pusillanimous.

In truth, civility is not about how you feel. It is about how you act toward other people. Civility is as civility does.

As a code of conduct, civility entails politeness, courtesy, and good manners. It’s opposite is rude, crude, coarse, vulgar, and tactless.

Your soul can be awash in lovely sentiments, but if you don’t know how to chew with your mouth closed, you will not be behaving civilly.

You may feel all of the world’s gratitude, but if you fail to send a thank-you note, you are being rude.

Civility is not about how you feel, but about how you make others feel.

When people confuse civility with kindness they are recommending that you go out and get some therapy.

They are telling you to purge your negative emotions and to get in touch with your warm, fuzzy ones.

If you reject therapy, civility’s proponents will happily police your language, the better to cleanse it of any words that might give offense.

Neutering your language is not a sign of civility. It is a sign of oppression.

If you want to become more civil, you should not be rummaging around in the depths of your soul to conjure up some niceness. You should be logging on to Amazon to purchase a few volumes of Miss Manners.

Civility lies in formal gestures, in rituals and ceremonies. It does not lie in the full and open expression of feeling.

If you want to practice civility, you should do so in all of your behavior, whether in everyday etiquette or in political debates.

When it comes to political debate, civility lies in the formal gestures of respect that legislators seem always to use: “the distinguished gentleman,” “my esteemed colleague,” “my dear friend.”

These are not lip service. They are gestures of respect. They assert, openly and actively, that disagreements are not personal. They allow a full and open airing of each side of the argument.

We have been losing our civility for decades now. It was a casualty of the 1960s counterculture. Incivility became de rigueur when the antiwar movement declared war against the Vietnam war.

Rather than present their arguments civilly, young radicals believed that they could only advance their cause by being revolting.

Led by the Weathermen they organized a mock insurrection, called Days of Rage, at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. Of course, they had to fight in the streets. Otherwise people would have thought that they were against the war because they were cowards.

Even for those who were not allied with William Ayers, the counterculture glorified rudeness and made it a way of life. It insisted on the virtue of spontaneous enthusiasm over the polite and respectful performance of social rituals.

With the election of George W. Bush and the Iraq War the antiwar movement was roused from its torpor. The armies of incivility awoke and ramped up the rhetoric and heaped vitriol on anyone who supported Bush and/or the war.

Compared to the violent rhetoric thrown at the Bush administration, Tea Party activists who showed up at Town Hall meetings and exercised their rights to free speech decorously, if somewhat loudly, were amateurs.


Anonymous said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: I Guess....

when the crowd at the memorial service cheers raucously, it is not a civil moment. -- Stuart Schneiderman

....I'm missing something here. As in 'what ceremony'?

There's a 'ceremony' at the start of just about EVERY sports event I'm familiar with. And the crowd 'cheers raucously' at the end of the National Anthem. And it is quite appropriate for them to do so. It manifests the sort of 'fighting spirit'—as we say in the Army—that makes US great.


[For it's conquer we must;
When our cause it is just.
And this, is our motto;
In God Is Our Trust. -- Last verse of the Star Spangled Banner]

Stuart Schneiderman said...

When I used the term "memorial service" I meant to refer to a service honoring the dead, as was supposed to have happened in Tucson. No one applauds during a funeral or cheers after it.

Anonymous said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: Explanation



[There but for the grace of God.....]

Anonymous said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: Further Reflection

There are some parts of some 'memorial services' for the hallowed dead that I would consider cheering.

Something stirring about how they gave the last full measure to give US the right to speak our honestly held opinions.

I'm reminded, at this point, of a song by Twila Paris....

What Did He Die For.

The question becomes WHAT did they die for? It goes back to a question that came to mind some years ago. Everyone dies. Each life ends like a punctuation mark at the end of a story. It's either a period or a question mark or an exclamation point some instances.... ellipse.


P.S. Which would you prefer.... the final 'symbol' in your life story?

Lyall said...

Enjoyed the post. The superficial definitions of civility being bounced around diminish the really power of civility properly exercised.

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