What we get wrong about civility
Civility gets a bad rap these days.
One need look no further than our head of state for confirmation, but it could be argued that Donald Trump is no more capable of civility than he is of humility, justice, good faith, wise counsel or any other virtue we’d wish our leaders to have. The rest of us — we can be better.
What disconcerts is that some of the finer minds and political talents of the younger generations in particular — but not exclusively — have formed a distorted impression about what it means to engage in a civil manner.
If not corrected, that will be the country’s loss. Because young adults are often the most passionately bold in their beliefs and possess the conviction and time to lead substantial change, before the obligations careers and family take over their lives.
But people are rejecting the notion of civility. They wrongly believe it’s the same thing as meekness, or at best moderation and politeness. That a civil person is docile and genteel to a point of ineffectiveness.
However, its root is the Latin “civilitas,” which denotes that which pertains to citizenship, politics and government. This sense needs to be reclaimed, I think, and civility ought to describe the attitudes and comportment that promote our best public values, the constructive aims we hold dear.
Unfortunately, we’re seeing more and more behavior that accomplishes the opposite.
Maryland’s former governor Martin O’Malley provided a classic example on Thanksgiving eve. He reportedly launched a tirade at Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, when the two ran into each other in a Washington pub.
O’Malley reportedly challenged Cuccinelli to justify the Trump administration’s practice of separating immigrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border and warehousing them in chain-link cages. Fair point — and an honest reply certainly would have been illuminating — but it was lost amid the drama. At one point, O’Malley asked Cuccinelli if he wanted to throw a punch, according to reporting by the Washington Post.
A few days prior, first lady Melania Trump was jeered and booed by teenagers in Baltimore. The students were reportedly reacting to the president’s rude and unprovoked slandering of their city as “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being” would want to live. Trump’s remarks, in turn, were meant to insult Rep. Elijah Cummings, who had criticized Trump.
The heckling carried on for a good portion of the first lady’s short speech. The students never settled down while she tried to pitch a message to “be best.”
They failed. Their beef is with the president, not the first lady. It would have been far more productive if they’d held signs asking her to press her husband to “be best.”
Civility requires that we avoid precisely the behaviors that Trump indulges: name-calling, slurs and childish derision. However, it doesn’t require us to suppress our emotions, even anger.
College campuses, in particular, have become the scenes of the national civility crisis. Groups on the left and right battle it out in a familiar pattern. Right-wing student group invites incendiary right-wing speaker; left-wing students set out to shut it down, by any means necessary. An all-too-typical example is the appearance of conservative writer Ann Coulter at the University of California, Berkeley, in late November.
Coulter’s the author of, among other books, “Adios America! The Left’s Plan to Turn our Country into a Third World Hellhole.” The title tells you all you need to know about her and about the intentions of those who invited her. Anyone who seriously wanted to have a productive conversation about immigration — even a very pointed and critical one — would never invite Coulter as the speaker. She’s a provocateur, not an honest scholar or thinker of any discernible public spirit. She’s somebody you invite to campus to start a rumble.
And, as expected, more than 2,000 people protested, and there were a handful of arrests. Luckily there was no violence. To the university chancellor’s credit, Berkeley had undergone a yearlong dialogue on free speech, including seminars on respectful dialogue, itself a response to campus disturbances over right-wing speakers in 2017.
The point of civility is not to keep the boat steady. In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. warned of the pitfalls of decorum, pointedly cautioning against “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
Rather, the point is to reprove those who champion error and injustice unsparingly — with words — in reasoned debate. That can be discomfiting enough! The duty of civility is to articulate the highest and best values in civic life. It doesn’t have to be nice, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t involve throwing a punch.
Readers can reach Mary Sanchez at firstname.lastname@example.org .