On Sunday last (1/31/2010) Rev. Lone Jensen asked us to consider the idea of Civility. As I was listening to her sermon, I was taking a few notes on my iPod Touch and thinking about the question deeply. What marks civility? How do we practice it? Is Civility equal to tolerance or, are they different issues? Why has civility declined?
I have always believed it best to start with definitions; so, what is Civility? According to Dictionary.com Civility is: courtesy; politeness. Merriam-webster.com defines it as: civilized conduct; especially : courtesy, politeness. However I prefer the definition given by the Institute for Civility in Government: Civility is claiming and caring for one's identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else's in the process.
To my mind there is a difference between the mere act of politeness and the intent behind it. It's one thing to hold a door open perforce, because it's the thing you normally do, and yet another to intentionally hold the door because the act eases the way for another person. Although it can certainly be argued that saying please and thank you merely as a matter of habit is a good thing, I think it's better to understand the "why" behind the action. Manners and civility are often used interchangeably. But the former does not necessarily imply the latter. A person can have "manners" when in mixed company but in the hollow of their heart still be uncivil. It is the consideration attendant to one's actions that makes them civil. It is understanding that we do not live in a vacuum, we are in community with each other. And, that in a community, thoughtfulness and consideration, of the reasons for our actions and of their consequences, mark the difference between dystopia and paradise. True civility is knowing that our actions have effect on others.
Being late to that meeting when you could be on time screams to the others attending that you don't value them. Saying thank you shows gratitude and appreciation. But, if the thank you is given grudgingly or "snapped off" quickly without eye contact it becomes meaningless, simply more noise in an already too loud world. The bone of manners or politeness is tasteless and hard without the meat of intention. So, if it's not merely manners and politeness but intention that marks civility how can we "aim" our actions to make civility a default condition? I believe it starts by practicing what I have heard called "Radical Tolerance".
Unitaritan Universalists already practice Radical Tolerance in our spiritual lives. In fact its enshrined in the Third and Fourth Prinicples of Unitarian Universalism. We practice an "Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations" and "A free and responsible search for truth and meaning". We believe that there is no single path to truth, that each seeker must chart their own course, but that we, in community, have a responsibility to support them on that journey. In other words, we "claim and care for (our) identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else's in the process". If we were simply to apply these same Principles to the other areas of our lives we would be living a life of Radical Tolerance. Civility will follow as a matter of course.
Radical Tolerance means respecting another person's right to live their life in the manner of their choosing so long as it doesn't infringe on the rights of others. Period. No exceptions. Now, before you say "I am Radically Tolerant" consider this: this belief means that the jerk on the highway has a right to cut you off or not let you in (so long as it doesn't cause an accident or bring harm). The guy who yells at the waiter has a right to do so and, the waiter has a right to tell him to buzz off! The hateful people who protest at funerals to decry against homosexuality have a right to do so, and Radical Tolerance suggests that we shouldn't yell back - even if they infuriate us. This is HARD STUFF because the other side of the coin is this: the fact that WE believe in, and practice, Radical Tolerance does not imply that anyone else must. The responsibility is all ours. Technically it's theirs too - but Radical Tolerance means respecting that they may not be able or willing to accept that responsibility.
In the end, tolerance, civility, politeness and the rest of these things that lead to a "civil"-ization only apply to US. We cannot control the actions of others, nor should we try in my opinion. There is an old adage that says "never try to teach a pig to sing, it wastes your time and annoys the pig". But, we can control how we respond. We can choose: to flip the other driver the bird or to let them drive away blissfully unaware that we exist; to holler at the grocery store patron with a cart full of items in the express lane or to read the Star while we wait our turn.
We can shout from the rooftops the need for civility but, it starts (as it must) with us.