The prolific writer C.S. Lewis in his book The Four Loves, in addressing the matter of rudeness, he poses a rhetorical question, “Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?” (Lewis, The Four Loves, 1960, 52). Lewis asked the question to make a point rather than to elicit an answer. It is assumed the question will be answered in the affirmative for civility. However, we are living in a day when it seems many would prefer barbarism to civility!
Whatever happened to civility?
Civility is word you don’t hear much anymore and even see it less being lived out. Civility means showing respect for another person’s words, actions, opinions and beliefs. It doesn’t mean we agree with the other person, but in the public arena our behavior is restrained whereby we treat the other person with respect, dignity and courteousness. There used to be a time in our nation’s history when civility was ingrained behavior in our national consciousness. Now days civility is about as rare as seeing a leprechaun riding a unicorn.
That question of civility made national headlines last week when the President delivered his State of the Union address (Feb 4). The matter of a need to return to civility was highlighted when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to introduce the President in the way previous House Speakers introduced the Commander in Chief by saying they had the “high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States.” Pelosi instead introduced the President as only “the president of the United States” leaving out the words “high privilege” and “distinct honor.” Her slight of the President was returned by the President’s slight when he ignored her outstretched hand, refusing to shake her hand. Upon the conclusion of the President’s speech, the House Speaker in a show of defiance ripped up the President’s speech as a stunned TV audience watched her disrespectful act. It is not the intention here to debate whose behavior exhibited more incivility, but both engaged in actions that can be labeled as such.
It seems we are living in a day when displaying disrespectful behavior in the public arena has become commonplace. There used to be time when people could disagree agreeably and try to find some common ground to work together. That seems to be a memory of days gone by. Too often encounters of public disagreement turn into shouting matches, talking over one another, belittling another for their views with sarcasm or mockery, or displaying facial expressions that speak louder than any words.
The wide-spread use of social media has intensified the breakdown in civility, as it has created a disconnect between people, seeing people as “things” not individuals who deserve our respect, understanding and compassion. Albert Einstein was right when he wrote over sixty years ago, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” What would Einstein say if he was living today?!?
The behavior of civility reveals one’s character, integrity, dignity, and sense of community or brotherhood. Where there is a loss of civility those virtues are absent, plunging society to act in a discourtesy and disrespectful manner toward one another. Sadly, the incivility we see in Washington, DC is only a reflection of what we see in society at large. Washington is only a reflection in many respects of the people who voted them in. One philosopher has pleadingly stated, “We all have to find a way to be civil to one another.” It seems, though, incivility has become the norm not the exception.
What has caused this breakdown in civility?
It is rather apparent the disappearance of civility has coincided with the rise of godless secularism. We have rejected the very core moral values upon which civility is built. Society has disregarded the teaching of the Master Teacher, Jesus Christ, who commanded humanity, “to love your neighbor as yourself,” “to love God with all your heart and soul,” “to treat others as you would like to be treated,” and to extend to one another ”forgiveness.” When we instead insistently pursue our own selfish ways regardless of who it hurts or destroys, then civility will vanish quicker than David Copperfield making an elephant disappear. And that is what we see happening today. William Penn (1644-1718), founder of the colony in the Province of Pennsylvania, recognized the importance of Christian morality, stating that dismissing Christian influences “destroys courtesy, civility and kindness.” How right he was.
James, the half-brother of Jesus, reminds us that we have all been created in the Image of God; therefore, we are to act with respect and civility toward one another. James asks us to ponder how we “with the tongue curse men who have been made in God’s likeness” (James 3:8). In a society that has lost a sense of the Divinely created value and sanctity of life, there needs to be a return to a recognition of seeing one another created in the Image of God, which would once again instill in us a tongue of civility when we are considering contemptuous speech or actions. It is possible to disagree with others agreeably, but it begins in the heart; a heart that has been captured by Divine Influence, pointing us beyond our selfish behavior to an understanding of the inherent dignity and worth of all people.
We long today for a restoration of civility in public life, but it will only be restored by a return to a moral commitment to the Moral Law Giver who commands us not to degrade those who may disagree with us or even mistreat us. Civility is not avoiding wrong thinking or erroneous views or disparaging remarks, but civility is what makes constructive dialogue possible where disagreement exists. While we all have our opinions and views, constructive inroads can never be made if we are not willing to with civility listen to those with whom we disagree. Paul wrote, “Let your conversation be always full of grace seasoned with salt” (Col 4:6). Would it not be nice if we all took Paul’s advice? To do so we would see a rebirth of civility in our society.
And as C.S. Lewis stated, “Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?”