Saturday, March 12, 2011

Civility ... what is this talk about?

Civility.  In recent months this word has been getting a lot of play in political and policy circles on the national, state and local level.  Some public debates and recent events come to mind as related to civility or the lack thereof:  congressional divisiveness, tea party attacks on the President's birth place and religion, "2nd Amendment remedies", attacks on public workers in Wisconsin and other states, the horrendous shooting in Arizona, and local issues like Atlantic Yards and bike lanes.  It has been said many times, with respect to all these issues and events, that our discourse lacks civility because we (1) turn policy issues into personal ones, (2) speak only to those who agree with us to further radicalize them, and (3) such conversations do little to advance public discussion and sometimes even inspire people to violence.

What is civility?  Civility in public discourse has come to be equated with a level of due process, allowing everyone to have their say without being heckled or intimidated, not turning policy issues into personal ones, and keeping debates peaceful.  To find an acceptable definition, Justice Scalia might turn to a dictionary to be accurate, and one defines civility as follows:

  1. Courteous behavior; politeness.
  2. A courteous act or utterance.
When I think of civility I think of civilization, or civil society.  However, the history of civilization (including dozens of bloody conflicts raging around the world as I type) is hard to equate with civility.  Is our conception of civility in our public discourse really one that is helpful to us in addressing the complex issues inherent in urban society?  No.  Our "civility" has become a set of guidelines that discourage us from screaming too loud, becoming violent, or getting too personal with each other.  If nobody gets physically hurt, or verbally assaulted, we are generally willing to declare that the discussion was civil.  What a low and inconsequential bar we set for ourselves. 

A civil discussion should in some way define and advance our goals for a civil society.  It should go well beyond the mere process of allowing people to speak about their already formed positions. It must encourage us to collectively address issues through a process that moves us closer to achieving shared goals.  Lining us up and having us hit each other with thickly padded gloves to avoid bloodshed does not accomplish much, but simply sends us all home with a headache rather than a broken nose.  We should challenge ourselves in our public discourse to raise the bar of civility to focus on a process that builds unifying bridges, and perhaps we'll all be better off.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great idea. I enjoyed reading your blog even though I just visit. You have filled a much needed void-Miriam Edberg