Civility is key to social interactions. Without civility, social discourse completely deteriorates. Without social discourse being civil, we accept and perpetuate name-calling and demeaning language that belittles our fellow citizens and fellow humans.
Civility comes from the word civis, which in Latin means “citizen”, and civility is defined as conduct characterized by courtesy or politeness or a polite act. Name-calling serves no useful purpose and only serves to dehumanize our fellow citizens.
When people are belittled, demeaned and/or demonized, we all suffer. We can disagree with folks, but when we treat them in an uncivil manner, we set ourselves up as the arbiters of right and wrong and can easily see others as not worthy of our attention. We can therefore feel that any “power” that accrues from our righteous stand allows us subjugate others.
I would argue that our treatment of children and families seeking refuge at the border is due to such an approach. These vulnerable people are too easily made to feel less than human. When we do that, we fall into the trap that immigrants (as non-Americans) do not deserve conduct characterized by courtesy or politeness. They can be shoved aside, they can all be seen as “murderers or rapists,” their families can be separated, and we can rationalize our behavior. We are good, and they are bad. These vulnerable families might be of the same faith but somehow, we lose sight of our own faith and our responsibility to others. How could this happen?
Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson recently reflected on the corrosiveness on the lack of civility in our society. “Over the past few years, [there has been] promoted the belief that a large share of the American people are endlessly productive of plots, frauds and hoaxes, that they are not be heard out in good faith, not to be acknowledged as enjoying the freedoms of the First Amendment. This is the aspersion, the fraud, the hoax most corrosive to democracy. Once a significant part of the population takes it to be true that other groups or classes do not participate legitimately in the political life of the country, democracy is in trouble. The public has no way to legitimize authority, which then becomes mere power.”
When we always see others as our enemy (certainly seen during this current political election cycle), we do not seek consensus or a common purpose. We see ourselves as right and we see others as wrong. The labels (Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative) do nothing to advance our common goals. I refuse to accept the divisiveness currently advanced as agendas are promoted. Yet as noted by Marilynne Robinson, when others are accused of plots, frauds and hoaxes, they are treated as not worthy of our attention. We argue that they are not legitimate, and their issues are not legitimate. I agree with Ms. Robinson that such a stance poisons our democracy going forward. Without rational discourse (without civility), we are headed down a dangerous path.
Our ability to maintain civility needs constant attention. Treating each other as we want others to treat us is so important. How did we lose track of this basic principle of a civil society? I contend that we know better but have gotten caught up in the heat of rhetoric that does not serve us well. Those of faith can never let themselves be so swayed. Disagreement is ok but never, ever, lose the integrity of engaging each other in a civil manner.