04/09/2012 02:38 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2012

Civility: A Contemporary Confucian Plea

Civility and contemporary society -- have they not simply become antithetical to each other?

Most of the time "civility" appears to be nothing but an old fashioned and out-of-fashion reminiscence of a by-gone era.

What has taken the place of civility in contemporary society may well represent "freedom of expression," but do we really benefit by having achieved the lowest common denominator of human expression as common parlance and conduct?

Is it really necessary to "give someone the finger" as an expression of the most minor of annoyances? (e.g. The guy behind you does not like the way you are driving!) Must we express ourselves daily in common discourse in what in another age would have been deemed a "vulgar tongue"? Must disagreements become the basis for personal attacks on the character of another person?

Dare we ask where lies dignity and respect?

Several months ago The New York Times (Sunday, February 5, 2012) carried an article suggesting that in South Korea an initiative has been undertaken to address the lack of civility that has become endemic of our contemporary world and Korean society in particular.

The initiative involves the reintroduction of Confucian education.

It is spearheaded by Korea's oldest private Confucian Academy, Sosu Seowon. Opening originally in 1543, the academy has seen a growing number of school children attending the academy over the past several years for extracurricular education in Confucian values. The country has some 150 such academies that have reopened to offer the same kind of education. Multiple thousands of students are involved in this educational initiative.

And what is the education offered? It is learning focused upon civility, upon the importance of community and family in a time where the dominant paradigm has shifted to monetary and material success of the individual seemingly at the sacrifice of numerous values.

The drum beat of the contemporary world's mantra continues -- me, money, me, money...

Perhaps, however, in the crazed competition for the world economic market something intrinsic to the soul and character of the Korean people had been lost. Deeply steeped in a heritage of Confucian learning and values, South Korea like other Asian nations, often saw much of modernization as a necessary rejection of its Confucian roots. And there are good reasons why much of the past was rejected. I am not justifying the past simply as the past.

The lesson came home, however, with the collapse of the halcyon days of the financial bubble for South Korea. The importance of the traditional heritage was suddenly more important than the newly found materialist opulence. The mania of materialism seems only to have separated people from each other and destroyed the foundation of civility at the deepest level of society, community and family. So-called modernization had taken its toll on the soul of Korean society.

Though we do not have a historical foundation of Confucianism ourselves, perhaps the mania of materialism have also taken a toll on our own tradition of values of respect and dignity. We may be "richer" by far through the "benefits" of modernization, but it is perhaps also the case that something has been lost in the process. Respect and dignity seem often to be the first casualties, and with their loss comes the loss of basic civility.

And what is Confucius' teaching on civility?

"To subdue oneself and return to propriety is goodness... Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement that is contrary to propriety..." (Analects XII:1)

Strong words and a strong code of conduct, an antidote perhaps to a world pervaded by its own strong (and expletive!) words and conduct that manifest so often only a forgetfulness of even the most basic standards of civility.

Respect and dignity -- where are they? -- Certainly not in giving someone "the finger" or using expletives in virtually all day-to-day discourse!

Confucius' passage suggests that "civility" is defined in terms of propriety, li, a virtue that emphasizes an inner attitude of respect and dignity toward others and the building of community. It suggests as well the need to "subdue the self," k'e chi, what is bound to be a very unpopular notion in an age where "freedom of expression" dominates civility.

"Freedom of expression" -- oh sure, the world we have created is all about "freedom of expression!" There seems to be no goal more important today and we certainly don't want to ever limit any freedom of expression!

And the mantra of "me" marches on...

Surely, however, the very dignity of the notion of "freedom of expression" is at best compromised, however, by its lowest common denominator. Such "compromise" is nothing short of prostitution -- a word whose basic meaning suggests taking something at less than its true meaning. What better way to describe where "freedom of expression" has taken us as a culture and as a community?

Must we dwell where dignity and respect no longer have a home, no longer define us as human beings, and no longer chart the long course of extraordinary human achievement? Should not human achievement, however, be more about building upon what is best about us as a species, not the lowest common denominator?

The answer to that question, at least for South Korea, is to reintroduce schools for the teaching of Confucian values as its own antidote to a world where the ability to act and talk with dignity and respect, civility, if you will, seem only vestiges of a by-gone era.

And how and when do we address our own lack of civility?