90. For a return to civility

Civility is a form of language which begins with manners and politeness and extends to morality, respect for our fellow human beings, social recognition, and working for aims like Agreement, Appreciation, Affirmation and Applause. Although we sometimes rank civility alongside its more superficial element, etiquette, we apparently find it increasingly difficult to accept the significance of more vital aspects. Civility is the lubricant of our social fabric and nourishes congeniality. More importantly, civility counter-acts its opposite: the offensive language of the brutal, the contemptuous, the violent, the confrontational and the deeply negative.

Civility engages us in constructive ways. Today the term “constructive civility” suggests the potential for strong engagement controlled by respecting differing views. President Obama in a major speech in Tucson Arizona in January 2011, urged Americans to “help usher in more civility in our public discourse … because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.” He emphasized that we had to converse with each other in ways that heal, not those which wound.

One recent poll indicated that 65% of Americans believed the lack of civility in their daily lives was a major problem that had worsened.1 This was confirmed in another study which found that 60 per cent of employees working in a social context felt that the annoying behavior of some co-workers had such an impact that 40 per cent were looking for new employment.2 Insults appeared to have replaced manners among the Republican candidates contending for the Presidency this past year. Observing the changing notions of civility in America, one columnist for The Economist wrote that “lots of voters on the right are thrilled by the politics of insult and rancor.” He suggested that for some, civility had become regarded as a sign of weakness.3 However “boorish” politicians might be, they are “misjudging a country that is better mannered than this.”

The internet, which has all too swiftly become our principal form of communication, has not yet had the opportunity to introduce notions of civility into emails or social media. “Being brief” has replaced being polite in this digitized world. “Hashtags” emphasize the importance or popularity of a subject and etiquette is no longer existent. “Hi” is now the universal greeting on the internet, and “regds” the usual closure in a format which demands that one does not waste one’s time on formalities. “K” now replaces “OK” in the texts of teenagers!

The sociologist Richard Sennett once defined civility as “ The activity which protects people from each other and yet allows them to enjoy each other’s company.”4 “Enjoyment” and leisurely discourse are no longer goals when one enters the social media. In the modern era, only those over 50 write long emails. The younger generations tend to disregard communications longer than two paragraphs. They simply receive too many emails for them to give consideration to those of lengthy “old timers.”

Thomas Jefferson wrote two hundred years ago that “Man was destined for Society.5 Jefferson clearly saw that in every society there are values, laws, customs and moral standards imposed on the individual members as the price for the privilege of belonging. Morality is not merely a way of suppressing natural instinct, it is a social contract. It embodies the way humanity considers its common project. The ancient Hebrews, the Greeks, the early Christians and Imperial Chinese all enjoyed a measure of shared morality. Such an active sense of kinship is now crumbling. All too many people feel left out and, as a consequence, confusion reigns. “We posses simulacra of morality,” suggested Alasdair MacIntyre, but “we continue to use many of the key expressions. We have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.”6 This loss has made us reluctant to draw distinctions between right and wrong, lest we ‘impose’ our morality on others and thus invite them to ‘impose’ their standards on us. Moral categories now make us squirm as do the passing of ethical judgments. There is a growing consensus that the moral absolutism of fundamentalisms is supremely dangerous.

On the other hand the absolute evasiveness of the relativist position is exposed by such popular definitions as: “Moral conduct is conduct of which a given society approves.” Morality, like civility, is more than merely conforming to the norms of the great majority. It involves listening to our inner voice, not to the moral relativism of the media.

Indeed what kind of social restraints can one expect in the age of the “selfie”? “The internet and social media function as outrage factories, supplied with the bare minimum of facts as raw material,” writes Tom Phillips, a senior writer at Buzzfeed who is working on a social media rulebook. “Subtweet not, and forgive those who subtweet against you,” he suggests. The social media is awash with expressions like “brazen”, “abrasive” and “shameless” as well as racist abuse, rape threats, revenge porn, hate speech and other forms of trolling attacks. The scale of such harassment has caused some victims to suggest that “It’s time to update our ideas on civility.”7

Such appeals for change are not new. Civility was of great concern in the 18th century when mortal duels were often fought over verbal slights and the lack of civility. As a young man, George Washington put together a long list of Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. Some suggestions for promoting politeness as a first step towards civility included:

  • 6. Sleep not when others Speak. Sit not when others stand. Speak not when you Should hold your Peace. Walk not on when others Stop.
  • 24. Do not laugh too loud or too much at any Public Spectacle.
  • 25. Superfluous Complements and all Affectation of Ceremony are to be avoided, yet where due they are not to be neglected.
  • 48. Wherein you reprove Another be Unblameable yourself.

The extent to which the multi-layered problems facing civility in the United States is illustrated by the number of universities that have created programs designed to foster civility. They include Missouri university, the University of Colorado, California State University and Kansas State University. Arizona University offers an undergraduate certificate in Civil Communication. Most of these universities stress the notion that civility is a sequence rather than a single thing or set of things. The founders of the Institute for Civility in Government, Tomas Spath and Cassandra Dahnke, state that “Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.”

There is general agreement among these groups that civility is about disagreeing without disrespect. Civility begins with us. Seeking common ground is an essential starting point for a genuine dialogue about differences. In politics civility must stress that personal power should be exercised in such a way that everyone’s voice is heard and nobody’s is ignored or demeaned.

The program of the University of Missouri promotes twenty ways in which we can further civility. I shall restrict myself to presenting half a dozen of these:

  • Model your behavior on the kind you would like to receive from others.
  • Conflict can be healthy if based on ideas or behavior rather than the person.
  • Listen respectfully, but do not let your silence condone disrespectful behavior and consider carefully when and where to speak up.
  • Consider how your use of the social media or email affects respectful relations.
  • Adopt positive and solution-driven approach to resolving conflicts.
  • Conduct emotionally driven conversations in person, or if necessary by telephone but not on a keyboard.

I believe, however, that the college or university level is a bit late for most of the youthful generations to learn about civility. Civility has universally been initiated in the home and slowly enlarged in schools. Children learn by example and what they do not learn in many of today’s families is respect and good manners. Instilling a code of conduct in today’s children is becoming increasingly challenging when there are no role models for them to copy. The result is that the pleasures of greeting and leave-taking are gradually diminishing. I believe that the language of civility can help to transform individuals into the shared existence we call society.

Desirable and important as individual freedom is in our societies, we must begin to recognize that far too intense a focus has been placed on the individual and insufficient priority has been given to the family, the community and the greater welfare of society. One critic of this situation has written: “Far to frequently Americans believe that the law simply does not apply to them – that they somehow have a right to live without constraints … most people cannot even occasionally put the good of the whole society above their own immediate gratification.”8 Seeing their parents or family as role models, many of the younger generation have begun to adopt the road of gratification, which ignores the social demands of civility, as the norm.

I am pleased to conclude with the profound appeal of my late friend, Vaclav Havel, who, after multiple prison sentences, craved for a world of greater civility:

“The question is … whether we shall, by whatever means, succeed in rehabilitating the personal experience of human beings as the initial measure of things, placing morality above politics and responsibility above desires, in making the human community meaningful, in returning content to human speech in reconstituting as the focus of all social action, the autonomous, integral, and dignified human “I” responsible for ourselves because we are destined to something higher, and capable of sacrificing something, in extreme cases even everything … for the sake of that which gives life meaning.”9


1Weber Shandwick, 2012.

2Barbara Richman, “Ten Tips for Creating Respect and Civility in Your Workplace,” May 28, 2014.

3Lexington, The Economist, December 19, 2015.

4Richard Sennett, The Fall of the Public Man, (1977, p.264

5Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787.

6Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue,(1981)p.2

7Nosheen Iqbal, The Guardian, October 28, 2015, The feature section p.5

8John Lincoln Collier, The Rise of Selfishness in America,(1994) p.259

9President Vaclav Havel, Open Letters, (1990) p.263

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