Civility- A Casuality of Modern Culture?

October 19, 2010 - 11:28 am 36 Comments

Social Virtues and Values:

Civility; Courtesy; Consideration:

Are they being lost?

Are They Requirements for Relationships?

What Are Their Possible Connections to living

an ethical and a spiritual life?

I have been wondering… Is it my imagination or has our world become more coarse? More crude? Maybe my feelings stem only from my personal disappointments with the interpersonal attitudes or crass outlooks of our media, and I willingly accept that it might be that my higher than average expectations for caring and my desire to see a greater consideration of other people’s thoughts and feelings, so maybe my behavioral bar has been set too high… I find myself asking are chivalry, being courteous, and acting with civility dead?

As I look around for possible causes and probable culprits, it could be the rapid fire pace of our culture that doesn’t take sufficient time to listen carefully or pay attention respectfully to others. I ask: Since when has the far limits of personal freedom trumped caring, empathy, or the need to put aside self interest and learn the valuable lessons of working together?

Another possible source is our electronic preoccupation- It is as if our emotional intelligence is supposed to be as quick and as sharp as e-mail, and that we can rely on google searches where the barest of information gives us access to quick answers, sound bites, and super fast conclusions.


Because we are so plugged in and wired, has that manufactured an electronic sense of urgency that has effectively robbed us from taking the time that is necessary to communicate wisely, or to listen compassionately? As Gandhi once put when he was asked to comment on the modern pace of life: “There is more to life than increasing its speed!”

Living at a fast, break neck speed robs us of our need for more careful introspection, it will negate or compromise the quality of our personal interactions, and makes superficiality into an accepted norm because we cruelly admit to not having enough time for one another!

As one surprisingly necessary result, there are many groups, and job sites that are now instituting firm guidelines for community e-mail and the associated terrors of speaking “speaking their minds” in order to keep people from “flaming” one another or allowing communications that would encourage rude discourse.

In my estimation, e-mail could never completely express human feelings, or convey all there is to know, see, perceive, and understand about another person… Whenever possible, we should seek to lessen those avoidable, yet often hurtful misunderstandings.


More insidious, I feel is the current preoccupation with Twitter, or instant opinion sharing… We have erroneously raised the value of personal opinion up to being a stated fact…

Just because one holds an opinion does not make them bright, accurate, or reliable! As it was once said, “everyone is entitled to an opinion, but not to their own set of facts!”

Besides, would people who use Twitter be called Twits?

Right? Or is that my old Monty Python idioms that I remember???

Of course, there are other cultural reasons, that I will soon explore with you, but I wonder, am I wrong about this new atmosphere of social insolence that seems to plague our culture, and skew us towards being incredibly uncivil: towards being more rude, crude and lewd?

In support of my queries and questions, a delightful book has surfaced that helps us to comprehend these social changes…. Not another rule book on etiquette, or a diatribe on the lack of manners, but a humorous overview of our social situation. The English author, Lynne Truss, entitled her book, Talk to The Hand- since my head is not listening! Subtitled as the utter bloody rudeness of the world today, or six good reasons to stay home and bolt the door!


She surfaces many questions that pertain directly to our lives and to the task of refining values that uphold the importance of living in and sustaining a supportive community.

For example, she writes, “The interesting thing is that, when we are cut free from any sense of community, we are miserable and lonely, as well as rude. This is the age of social autism, in which people just do not see or even imagine their impact on others.”

Throughout my years of involvement in ministry and community, when I read the more popular critics of modern culture, they will wail and bemoan the lack of honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness in our society today. Without citing a laundry list of where these various ethical violations can be found- for that would be too easy, starting with “gangsta”rap, demeaning advertising, gratuitous sex and worse, the level of violence we allow in the media, down to the daily acceptance of cursing as descriptive of everything- you see, it will be a LONG list! …

When was it in our lives that we first began to treat others with suspicion? When did it become scary or even unsafe to assume that you can trust people? Or assume that others sincerely care about you? “How Are you??? Do they really want to know???”


The agreed upon solution to these social conundrums is to return an agreed upon modicum of manners and to reinforce a level of decency and consideration in all of our social or personal interactions. The answer, as I see it, is to bring back Civility!

Civility? I know that might sound like such a dated and old fashioned term… You know, like politeness, prudence, courtesy, and even a little kindness… . While I do earnestly hope that politeness and kindness never go out of style, it is because I will declare that civility is more multifaceted, more public, dynamic, more far reaching…

Civility retains its wide, and enduring value because it centers on the importance of self restraint, and acts as a way to uphold mutual respect and promote social dialogue and while still maintaining healthy, ethical norms. In fact, it is said, that to the degree that civility is maintained, it becomes less necessary for us to have laws that police us, or rules that regulate our social behaviors. Civility means that we chose to act in ways that are respectful and considerate of other people; and in doing this, we gain respect and esteem for ourselves. In some ways, civility is a sign that we have understood the moral and ethical lessons that we were taught in our schools and in our places of worship. The development of such social empathy and the effects of a learned desire to reciprocate is not without significance for us personally, professionally, or for the future promise of our civilization.


Compare this to Gandhi’s compassionate teaching and to Nelson Mandela observation: Gandhi stated: The greatness of a nation can be seen by how it treats its animals… And Mandela comments: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

(Some commentataries will cite one or both of these quotes as including women and animals and/or including women and children… And life in SC can attest to that!)

Originally, civility is a concept that finds its origins in morality and manners, and then it was extended to make political and cultural discourse, and it extends the uses of diplomacy and tact to be more effective and sincere. When combined with the necessities of sociopolitical discourse, we get to the core of our Western cultural views for character development, and we see how necessary civility is for the upbuilding of a responsible and ethical society.

In word origins, the word civility comes to us from the same Latin root word for civilization, civitis… Could it be that when people stop being civil to one another, that our civilization begins to truly break down? Is there a connection between keeping a “civil tongue” and holding on to a feeling of mutual regard, caring, or maintaining an emotional safety that makes our society function more cooperatively and harmoniously?


Civility holds an important religious value. When confronting the conservative notions that God controls human behavior by rewarding or punishing it, we need to find a cogent rebuttal:

Rev. Earl Holt, scholar in residence at King’s Chapel in Boston put it this way:

“[Suppose that our moral and ethical character is shaped from within us, by our own spiritual nature and its core values, by our spiritual and ethical heart? If that is true, and then we do not need to have some judgmental God peering over our shoulder, or ready to judge all of our behaviors. So it would follow from our own ethical decision-making, that we humans create the society we have, and the depth, quality, the safety and security of our society is shaped by the people who are living in it!]”

He continues, “[a good society, then, can only be built by good people, by the ethical qualities embodied in who we are, and how well we shape it, and how we choose to conduct ourselves, thereby displaying the depth of their personal character. A society therefore, is not primarily shaped by its government or its economics, but by the character and civility of its citizens.]” Is he right? That there are indeed, guidelines that can be established to maintain civil discourse and that will promote safe, and supportive social dialogue?]”

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As I see it, civility implies an awareness of the impact of our actions on others… It implies that we are all aware of our motives, and awareness carries with it responsibility for what we do, and why we do it.

In connection with contemporary psychology, psychoanalyst Heinz Kohurt advocates for greater civility in our culture and in our congregations as the best antidote for what is popularly called narcissism- an excessive dwelling on or a preoccupation with the importance of oneself. Kohurt connects civility with the capacity for empathy. He states that when people feel as if their have been truly acknowledged, understood, and respectfully heard, then they are better able to handle or manage any tendency towards self centered blindness, and we can learn to interact in more unselfish and balanced ways.

I see a direct parallel between civility and thoughtfulness; between civility and holding a positive regard for others- Civilty asks us to listen to others in a way that seeks concord, that first looks for ways of appreciation and agreement, rather than looking strategically or even defensively for a challenging repartee or to engage in a sharp debate…. Civility when regarded in this way becomes a building block for nobility, for unselfishness, and it moves us towards higher idealism and a wider sense of altruism…


It might even become a cornerstone that supports the origins of the religious and ethical impulse in humankind, and in a interactive contrast to living by the dictates and the legalisms that any judgmental God could convey. Civility can be seen as providing us with a basis for claiming our own integrity, as it requires us to practice a more universal compassion that works to establish justice, heal our world, and to address empathetically and effectively its many challenges.

So as a final question that we can ask ourselves is this:

Is living in an increasingly crude and selfish society worth it?

If not, what steps can you take to improve mutual respect and compassion in our lives? How is it that we can promote those virtues and values with one another and model them for our children?

Sociologists who study the foundations of culture will generally conclude that one of the primary purposes for the family, for the school, and for the church, is to teach, promote, and inculcate civility. That is, to teach the value of respecting others, the importance of self restraint, and how to set safe and comfortable boundaries within oneself and with another people.

If we sincerely seek to change ourselves or transform various conditions and situations in our world, one place we can all begin is in supporting a return to civility…


Not just as politeness, but as a vital means to establishing a guidebook for social harmony where we learn the value of others, and how to unite with others in ways that will truly change, heal, and inspire our world.

So Be It. AMEN


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