Civility

Civility is understood by many to represent the tradition of politeness and decorum, which gives society necessary social cohesion, a traditional and conservative sensibility.  On the other hand many on the left see such civility as a restraint on honesty and forthrightness, even a veneer of dismissiveness imposed in society by those with power.

Civility is also often expressed as a civic expression of the golden rule, which experiences little resistance from the right or the left.  This definition of civility becomes more controversial when there is an emphasis on promoting the growth of indicators of moral maturity such as the importance of promoting the increasing willingness and ability to be kind, inclusive and appropriate with those who are different than you are (including how the left relates to the right and visa versa), and moving from conflict to collaboration in approaches to communication and policy development.  Some on both the right and the left have qualms about acknowledging the need to grow in terms of moral maturity and civil capacity, particularly relative to their own group. 

While civility has always been held up as a virtue, American politics has appeared to some to become more and more uncivil.  In the wake of Gabriel Giffords shooting, there was more discussion of civility in America - many of it positive.  For instance, "civility as we pursue it is the ability to disagree with others while respecting their sincerity and decency.  It is possible to disagree on a policy, but believe that others who disagree are not evil, anti-American, stupid, or heartless” (Civilpolitics.org).

Not everyone has embraced civility, however. In early 2011, after one Democrat and one Republican had tried for two years to get sitting governors and members of Congress to sign a rudimentary civility pledge, the project had to be abandoned because only three individuals had responded. Mark DeMoss, in attempting to explain why U.S. government leaders largely ignored the aforementioned “civility pledge,” writes “too many people equate civility in public life with unilateral disarmament”; he then cites Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly’s analysis: “I wouldn’t sign [the civility pledge] if I were in Congress…I’d be afraid that if my opponent attacked me I wouldn’t be able to attack him back.” About calls for civility in the media, Rush Limbaugh recently said, "civility is the new censorship".  

The Civil Conversations Project (CCP) is Krista Tippets’ series of radio shows for beginning new conversations in families and communities -  including dialogues on abortion, race and gay rights. They ask, “How do we speak the questions we don't know how to ask each other? Can we find ways to bridge gulfs between us about politics, morality, and life itself? Can we do that even while we continue to disagree, passionately? How is technology playing into all this, and how can we shape it?”

Civility can be construed pragmatically as an attitude and practice that aims to optimize the social benefits of critics and rivals that respectfully and persuasively engage to experience mutual influence that limits violence and prompts cooperation.   

QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:

-How important do you consider civility (and lack of civility) to be as a cultural issue right now in America?

-Some see civility as trivial and silly as a focus – when compared to other community issues. What would you say to those people and to that concern? 

Contributors: 

Randall Paul

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