Civility? What for?

by Milan Vodicka, Ph.D

Your child just came home and shared with you, the parents, his or her experience of the day in school. “Our principal told us that the math teacher we have is a sleaze-bag. And he said the history teacher is a little wise guy. They are getting nothing done. They are nervous and a disgrace to themselves. Zero work done, he said. Do other schools have teachers like that?”

Of course, I invented the teachers, the child and the family, but not the principal’s words about others. Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Mr. President speaking. Does he manifest what civility means, in speech? Do we need civility? What for?

The dictionary tells us that civility is “formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech.” You may recognize the Latin root of “civility” in the words “civic” or “civilization.” Its meaning is related to the word “city.” Indeed, civility emerged a long time ago, in the years around 600-200 B.C., in the time span, called by historians, the “axial age.” Axial, because civilizations of that time were turning on their axis, transforming. People had to learn to live in the emerging cities, close to each other. They had to adopt rules and guidelines for that kind of living. They had to learn to be civil and respect civility as a new way of life.

There are time honored rules and traditions for civilized speech. Let us review just two of those. The Bible, six Christian rules of speech – 1/ respond gently to angry words (Proverbs 15.1), 2/ share the truth lovingly (Proverbs 15.2, Ephesians 4.15), 3 /speak truthfully (Proverbs 15.3), 4/ share wisdom (Proverbs 15.7), 5/ wait for the right time and place to speak (Proverbs 15.23), 6/ keep a clean mouth (Ephesians 4.29). Buddhist take, formulated by prof. Robert Thurman of Columbia University: “You need realistic speech, which is you do not lie to the people. You do not speak divisively to get them angry to each other. You do not speak meaninglessly to waste their time with frivolous, meaningless chatter. And you do not speak harshly and use speech as a bludgeon on people.”

Yet, are we honoring those and other similar rules and traditions? Specifically, do we recognize Mr. President as honoring them? Do we see our culture as a mirror of civility or incivility in which we live?

Here you have it, from “the enemies of the people.” The Washington Post: “Americans have had it with vulgar hateful speech – and blame Trump.”  Another headline: “Donald Trump defends repeating that vulgar word: ‘It was like a retweet’.”

Just yesterday, I watched proud parents and their kids on the corner of the Brunswick shopping center waving flags and signs for “Trump 2020,” their kids joyfully running with their flags unfolded by the wind and motion. Not many people were honking, I heard just one. There they were, our neighbors, clad in patriotic colors, promoting their folk hero, the man who would “drain the swamp.” I wonder, how do these parents talk to their kids?

When we face the demotion of civility, so reminiscent of regimes of fascism and communism of the past, we clearly have a choice. The choice runs the spectrum from defense and excuses – “at least the president does not pretend to be someone else than who he is,” or “he speaks up his mind” – to rejection and simply not accepting his uncivilized and indeed harmful speech conduct.

This choice obviously goes beyond Mr. Trump. The television “debates” of talking heads screaming one over another, foul language in the movies, or the violent games, can serve as other examples of not very civilized speech.

Some findings of the Pew Research Center, ( Both Republicans and Democrats insist that elected officials should be honest and ethical on the issues, be knowledgeable on the issues, admit when they are wrong, treat opponents with respect, and to be willing to compromise with them.

We all must answer the quest for civility in our country and culture. This is worth remembering in our public presence and discourse – including whom we support and, especially, vote for.

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