I've been thinking about the calls for greater civility delivered eloquently by President Obama and many in the media. David Brooks, for example, with whom on occasion I've disagreed, wrote of civility as "the natural state for people who know how limited their own individual powers are and know, too, that they need the conversation." The conversation is our engagement in "social enterprise" -- listening to the views of others so that we might improve our own.
Civility usually refers to politeness and courtesy extended to others. When this becomes rare, confrontation is more frequent and disdain more common. Tensions between people arise and escalate quickly. When others must be wrong in order for us to be right, civility suffers.
Civility, therefore, is good. But recent calls for greater civility remind me of calls in the past for tolerance toward people not of your own race, religion, gender or nationality. Tolerance is better than no tolerance, but it's not as admirable a goal as appreciation. Civility is better than incivility, but not half as socially substantive as empathy and compassion.
So, to start with civility is an insufficient goal for a society seeking to raise the tenor of its public and private discourse.
Calls for civility have another limitation. They usually succeed in making already nice people nicer, but rarely change in any significant way truly uncivil people. In short, the nice just get nicer. Certainly there's nothing wrong with that and people normally nice who've slipped a bit might be constructively jolted back to kindness by a societal call such as the one following the Tucson tragedy.
To improve our society long term, however, we need to know how to deal effectively with uncivil people. They are everywhere. And while I agree with President Obama that the good among us outweighs the evil, to maintain that advantage we must, as individuals and groups, learn how to respond to people poisoning our environment.
We must expect that people with diverse interests will differ, but we need not see as acceptable injurious and demeaning expressions of those differences. Separating the problem from the people is how differences important to our democratic way of life are most effectively expressed. That is something we witness far too infrequently now.
On a personal level in daily conversation, civility requires separating accidental offense from purposeful insult, so that we don't respond to both as if they are the same. We all make mistakes and occasionally offend by accident. We choose the wrong words or say what we don't really mean. When that happens, it's often useful to give the offending person the benefit of the doubt. Or, as I've written about before, employ the strategy of "giving them the opportunity to do the right thing." Questions are useful comebacks to offense as they give the offender an opportunity to reflect: "Did you really mean to say that?" or "Did you mean to say what I just heard?"
But if someone lies to you or treats you with indifference or disdain, especially repeatedly, a generous response invites him or her to do it again.
This is an important consideration. Many of us start our careers as purists -- kind to just about everyone. We learn, however, that this is a good way to let some people walk all over you. As one of my professors once said to me, "You can be pushed and pulled through life or do some of the pushing and pulling."
Whether you see people as basically good or not, there will always be ones who lower the rest of us for their benefit. The civil among us should know how to stop them in their tracks. This requires a repertoire of responses. For example, if someone says to you, "That's a stupid idea," you're at a choice point. A civil but direct response: "Novel ideas often sound stupid at first. Just hear me out."
But if this person is habitually rude, patronizing, crude, or insulting, rewarding him for being so perpetuates the problem. "You're my boss, but that doesn't give you the right to say whatever you please" is a civil but direct response.
When Rush Limbaugh accused Michael J. Fox of faking Parkinson's symptoms, Fox took the high road but others let Limbaugh know that even for shock-jocks who make it up as they go and insult for entertainment there are limits. As a society, we need to know what those limits are and refuse to listen to and reward those who ignore them.
It isn't necessary that we all become nicer on a superficial level. Instead, we should teach ourselves to respond effectively and differently to accidental offense and purposeful insult. We should make a greater effort each day to understand the views expressed by others, question rapidly formed assumptions, expect credible support for controversial positions, respect debate, and, when possible, limit the escalation of disagreement to confrontation.
In this way, civility is not confused with timidity. It is not admired over the courage to speak up and stand up to those who debase all of us by demeaning any of us. It becomes a means of improving the way we interact with others who deserve our respect just as we deserve theirs.
Kathleen also blogs at comebacksatwork
She is on Twitter @comebackskid
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