16 January 2011

Fighting the Call for Civility

Pamphlet on the creation of the Anti-Dueling Association of New York
in 1809 as a reaction to the Hamilton-Burr duel five years previous

The top-voted online comment on a New York Times Op-Ed by David Brooks, “Tree of Failure” (which I enjoyed very much), made a case for denying civility to people who downright don’t deserve any. The commenter had this to say: “I’m all for civility,” [A nice start.] “but there’s no way I am going to be polite to a bunch of venal politicians trying to destroy the social safety net of the New Deal.” The commenter ended that paragraph with...

“So no, I am not going to be civil to these people because they don’t deserve my politeness. To them, I will continue to be loudly and unashamedly vitriolic, blunt and rude, because that is my civic duty. Let them all hug themselves silly in their plexiglass Washington bubble. Spare me their obscene self-congratulation and pompous admonitions.”
To me, that pretty much negates (if not its OED definition, then) the point of civility. Reserving the apparently precious supply of civility solely for people with whom you agree would be like vowing to stand bravely at all times except when things get difficult, dangerous, painful, or scary. If courtesy should only be employed when dealing with people whose ideas we like, bravery only in circumstances of safety, patience only when we’re having a good time, and honesty only when we have something to brag about, is there really any use for those virtues?

A call for increased civility should not be mistaken for a transformation that can be realized with a quick promise and a good night’s rest. Being polite to people all the time isn’t easy, even when we love them dearly, and changing an uncivil behavior—especially one that has made a person popular or brought national attention—is all the more difficult when that behavior is habit or when it seems to achieve goals; and the way some public figures view incivility, changing this behavior could subtract from popularity, attention, and achievements. When someone has that much invested in a behavior, change will not come easily. That I understand.

Yet I’m struck by instances of public, steadfast support for a method of communication whose battle cry seems to be “Hey, civility. Bite me!” The protocol under discussion is not incredibly demanding. Encarta makes is easy for us: “the formal politeness that results from observing social conventions.” This is the grand demand of civility. When someone asks that others show civility, she isn’t saying to stop disagreeing, stop working for goals you believe in, and swallow gruel for the rest of your life. She’s saying, “While you’re performing your civic duty (or, for that matter, trying to influence the policies of people who meet in a room where they have to use titles like The Distinguished Gentlewoman from the Great State of New Hampshire), could you please not keep telling everyone to bite you?” A rise to that level of dialog seems reasonable to me.

DID YOU KNOW that Wikipedia has a policy on civility? You've been one-upped, national discourse. You too, political rhetoric.

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