TebowMania in New York
Groupon Restatement of Earnings a Cause for Concern

What is Civility?

Lack of Respect is the Root of Cause of Incivility in Society

The word ‘civility’ shares an etymological root with the idea of ‘citizenship’ on the one hand, and of ‘civilization’ on the other. The first sense of civility, reflecting the link to the concept of citizenship, is found in the idea of ‘civic behavior’. Political theorist John Rawls argues that political legitimacy must be based on public reason. As such, ‘the ideal of citizenship imposes a moral, not a legal, duty—the duty of civility—to be able to explain to one another . . . the principles and policies they advocate and vote for’.

If we look at the Republican nominating process of choosing a candidate to run against President Obama, it is difficult to see any evidence of civil discourse. Civility in this sense requires that we listen to others with fair-mindedness and accord them the respect they deserve. Ah, but there is the rub.

I have blogged before about the issue of civility and pointed out that by age sixteen, George Washington had copied out by hand, 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. They are based on a set or rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595. The first rule is:  'Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.'

For those directly engaged in politics, this means listening to others, being tolerant of views other than one’s own, and recognizing that the principle of ‘shared governance’ must be put ahead of one’s own ideological claim. In other words, a civil society depends on the ability of its leaders to look beyond self-interest and make decisions based on what is best for the country. Given that Democrats and Republicans typically have different views on this matter, the fact is compromise is the basis for having a civil society because it involves listening to others and recognizing one side or the other cannot always get what it wants but, in the interests of the country, a middle ground must be found.

One June 22, 2010, Weber Shandwick, Powell Tate and KRC Research released new research that explores the state of civility in America. The survey asked 1,000 American adults to express their views about the tone and level of civility in government and traditional and social media. Here are some of the results: (1) two in three respondents believe civility is a major problem while three in four believe the problem has gotten worse; (2) three in four said the financial crisis and recession made the level of civility in America worse; (3) just one in four expect civility to improve while one in three think it will get worse; (4) not surprisingly, the government and politics were identified as having the least civil discourse and a majority characterized America’s high schools, talk radio, and Hollywood celebrities as uncivil.

Have you checked out You Tube lately? More and more we see video clips of teenagers attacking one another and there seems to be a marked increase in girls getting involved in the mayhem. I suppose such actions were the motivation for the Oxygen network developing a television program called Bad Girls Club that is in its sixth season.

The big question is why does society reward bad behavior? Does each of us secretly wish we could do the same thing and have such public exposure? Of course, it’s hard these days to do the right thing and wind up with your own television show. The public doesn’t want to see it and network executives give the public what they want. Or, is it the other way around? People who act responsibly and accept the consequences of their actions typically are not the kind of people who seek out notoriety for their good acts. They do it because of an inner voice or conscience that tells them it is the right way to behave.

I see no hope for civility becoming the norm in American life so long as our leaders act uncivil. Incivility in public discourse seems to create a divide in how talk radio deals with important issues facing the nation. One side or the other makes fun of their opponents; dissects every last word to find a gaffe; and even exaggerates the opposing views to the point of distortion if not outright lying. Incivility then creeps into every day life such as cutting people off on a roadway, shoving others to get to the head of a line, cursing in public and other forms of uncivil behavior.

Civil discourse was an important value to our founding fathers. Perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best: "There can be no high civility without a deep morality."  

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on April 2, 2012