I think I fell in love with the message conveyed by this illustration the first time I saw one of those “co-exist” bumper stickers. Diversity, inclusion, and respect are words that have always had deep meaning to me, and the January 6th attack on our Capitol has made those words all the more important. My train of thought quite naturally led to the concept of civility.
My parents taught us the importance of being considerate and respectful to others, to behave in public, and to put others before ourselves. Although I didn’t know it during my childhood, they were teaching my siblings and me about civility.
Without diminishing the importance of manners and etiquette, It turns out that what I was taught went far beyond saying please and thank you, and putting my napkin on my lap. My parents demonstrated civility by showing us how they thought we should treat other people. Their teachings were something I used to take for granted. Now, I’m thankful for those lessons learned.
Civilized society is nothing new, and it’s nothing revolutionary. We’ve been co-existing since the beginning of time. Sometimes we do it well, and sometimes not so much. So why is it important?
Well, evidently George Washington thought about civility as a form of respect. At the age of 16 (in 1748) he wrote that “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.” I doubt that he was born with that knowledge. Civility is a learned behavior, and quite obviously some parents teach it to their children while others do not.
Civility is important because it enables social discourse. And social discourse is important so that we may understand each other. Regardless of your passion, your volume, or your intensity, there’s a possibility, however remote, that you might be wrong. If you engage in civil conversations with others, you may walk away enlightened. If you don’t, you may walk away with the stain of a few insults hurled at you. However, as hurtful as those insults may be in the moment, in the grand scheme of things, they’re meaningless. Outbursts of anger or frustration not only lack civility, they usually lack substance.
If you were on the debate team in school, no doubt you were taught the rules and were expected to follow them. If you’ve ever watched a political debate on television, no doubt you’ve observed those who try to ignore the rules by interrupting, shouting, and name-calling. Does that person’s lack of civility garner favor in your eyes? Or are you more inclined to lean towards the debater who respectfully states a position?
Now imagine that you’re the one at the podium. You have two minutes to state your position, and then you must listen while your opponent has two minutes to state an opposing view. What do you suppose would happen to the two of you if no winner was declared? Would you have learned something while exercising civility?