“Civility in a Contentious World”
In 2019, Weber Shandwick, a national public relations firm that has conducted polls on civil discourse in America since 2010, found Americans firmly united on one thing: 93% of Americans view the lack of civility in our country as a problem. Among the reasons people cite as contributing to incivility are social media, which allows for anonymous personal attacks on others, and a divided news media that too often creates echo chambers that harden people’s positions.
2019 a Pew Research survey also found a firm public consensus: 68% of respondents wanted elected officials to “maintain a tone of civility and respect in politics.”
We are told in 1st Peter to “show proper respect for everyone” (1 Pet. 2:17), and later to
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” And then he adds immediately: “But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15).
Yet Politics has become a blood sport governed by tribalism and absolute fealty to a political party. While debate often is needed in a democracy to reach solutions that benefit the public, our shared values compel that those solutions be achieved through a process rooted in respect and civility.
Civility requires, respect, restraint, courtesy and empathy. —– Rudeness, threats, bullying and personal attacks have nothing in common with civility.
There is a prevailing climate of incivility that exists in too many places today. The present mindset is to purposefully and blatantly exploit divisions by what we tweet, and by the names used to call out or belittle someone with whom we disagree.
An effective political strategy, maybe — but not without its consequences.
We should all know by now that words matter, 1st John states: “and the Word was God”… That’s powerful.
Even Harry Potter’s Professor Dumbledore knew the power of words: “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”
In Unity, we find a life affirming faith, it requires us to see the face of God, not only in the heavens, not only in the mirror, but in the face of our sons and daughters, our neighbor and yes, even in the face of the stranger.
We are to encounter our fellow citizens not with suspicion or hostility; we must encounter them with the realization that created in the Divine image, they are as fully remarkable as we. The stranger we meet on the street or the opponent we hear in a debate is as entitled to our respect – as are the people we love most in the world.
That may not be the way of our human nature –but it is the way of God.
And for us in Unity, a way of life.
Learning to live by extending courtesy to one not because we are familiar them, but because we see them as fellow human beings, seeing them the way we see ourselves, and treating them accordingly.
What happened to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you? It’s almost identical in all faiths and cultures…
Edmund Burke remines us: Keep in mind, “Whatever disunites man from God, also disunites man from man.”
That night in 1968 when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Robert Kennedy was to speak in Indianapolis before a largely Black audience. He broke the news to the crowd, scrapped his prepared text and quoted the Greek poet Aeschylus (eskələs) saying, “let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentler the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”
How sad, how few builders of bridges are in view today. We lost a few great ones recently. We need prayers and more prayers for our country, for all people and for the world.
Joel Rosenthal is the head of the Carnegie Institute for Ethics in International Affairs – and he wrote recently in a critique of the current state of affairs, “For more than two centuries, America has been held together by a sense that ethics matter. These familiar principles include ordered liberty, equality under law, respect for all, and common decency. Even in the most trying times, these self-evident truths have endured to guide the natural struggle for power.”
But as Joel suggests and most of us would agree, those self-evident truths are less visible today. Pundits blame it on cable news, siloed news feeds and gerrymandered districts with no consequences for the most shrill and extreme voices.
Civility is declining, and the willingness to listen too often is dependent on what one wants to hear. Discussion among families and neighbors can become nasty and divisive. Disrespect for differing points of view creates walls between people, and we lose out by not considering other perspectives.
And those voices play so well into our fears. For some it’s the fear of the other, the immigrant who might take our jobs or change the voting pattern of our community.
For others it is the fear of encroachments on our democracy that has led to intolerance and the categorical dismissal of views not shared.
In either case we live in echo chambers of our making and have learned to rationalize our incivility by saying how the other side is worse. It’s just as problematic for a baker to refuse to bake a cake for someone’s wedding as it to refuse to serve a political opponent a meal at one’s restaurant.
But we might also agree that it’s not just in the sphere of politics. Bonds of civility fray in many areas, from Little League fields where the parents can be more problematic than kids to lacrosse games between neighboring schools.
And the way we travel also leads to incivility. Whether it’s alone in our cars or struggling to get on a crowded plane we see others as competitors and obstacles.
What were once civil norms are not necessarily so civil today. Is it the enhanced pace of our lives, the 24/7 availability expected of us, or is it some aspect of our affluence that gives us a sense of greater entitlement and makes us much less patient?
We call ourselves Christians, yet where is the Good Samaritan? Where the sharing of bread and wine with strangers as they travel?
Yale law professor Stephen Carter wrote a book on civility suggesting that it had three parts: generosity, even when it is costly; trust, even when there is a risk; and sacrifice for strangers, not just for people we happen to know.
If we resist giving in to the cacophony ([kaˈkäfanē) of our time, we can shape the moral discourse that we inhabit by insisting on a rhetoric of courtesy, and the blessing of compromise. These are values worth defending. We are all stakeholders in the outcome, we will reap what we sow, and it may even be through those efforts that we determine whether we get the leaders we deserve.
In “Love Your Enemies,” author and American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks offers a recipe for healing a country divided: “Go find someone with whom you disagree; listen thoughtfully; and treat him or her with respect and love. The rest will flow naturally from there.”
Can we do that? Can we separate our emotions long enough to actually HEAR the other person’s point of view?
Civility means to act as one would in a settled city wherein law and manners, not force and passion, guide the interchanges of the public order as well as the normal affairs of men and women within their homes and voluntary associations. Civility presupposes reason but includes courtesy, compassion, and good taste. It usually involves a written or unwritten constitution that broadly defines the orders of procedure for ordinary human exchanges of opinion
Incivility, by contrast, means the refusal to adhere to commonly accepted standards and customs. It indicates a breakdown, either minor or major, in the public order wherein differing opinions are normally and peacefully worked out among reasonable people who do not always agree with one another.
Almost all incivility justifies itself by appealing to something higher than existing laws and customs. This “something higher” may be God, or one’s own will, a constitution, or a theoretical system we have usually come to designate as an ideology.
An ideology is an idea or system of interrelated ideas that are self-justifying as the explanation of how things ought to be. They indicate a pattern or order that is to be put into effect as the solution to a given polity’s own inherent problems.
The bond of reason that is implied by civility is a delicate thing. It requires a habitual willingness to adhere to the civil law, to work out our differences by known rules, compromises, and concern for a common good that allows and encourages bringing forth many differing goods not possible except with others.
That means it requires DOING…
“Martin Luther King felt it was not enough that we have certain inalienable rights. He felt strongly that we must put action to our beliefs.”
Our Fifth Unity principle says it’s not enough to know the principles. We must take action in whatever way we feel is most in line with our beliefs.
We have choice…free will, so how we act, how we treat others is always up to us. What do you wish to see in our country as we move closer to our election?
You have a place in how things play out.
Let’s finish with these thoughts:
“I get a choice every time I have to open my mouth: that it can be with civility and dignity and grace – or not.” Dana Perino
“Hope has 2 beautiful daughters: Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are. Courage to ensure they don’t stay that way” -St. Augustine