Civility Is Not Passé

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As I leave behind the school year–we had our last day today, with a faculty meeting and luncheon–I feel some melancholy. It has been a lovely week: I helped administer oral examinations, took part in the diploma ceremony, went out for coffee with two colleagues, cleaned the surface of my desk (at school), took a bike ride, ate lots of sour cherries, and began preparing my Dallas lectures on Homer, Dante, and Melville.

But this week alone I ran into several writings and speeches claiming that civility does not bring about change, that heckling is necessary, and that if we are reverting to tribalism, well, we have always been tribal, whether we admitted it or not.

Such pieces imply that anyone calling for civility either lacks understanding or clings to power and privilege. Supposedly “civility” is the code for keeping things just as they are. I reject this proposition. Civility does not have to take the form of stiff politeness or euphemism. You can be strong, stubborn, outspoken, clear, and civil. To be civil is to recognize the limits of your knowledge, to listen to others even if you disagree with them, to build what you have in common, and to seek right action regarding your differences. In addition, it involves learning about the world so that you can speak and hear wisely. Above all, civility makes room for discernment. It allows you just enough time and pause to distinguish one situation from another.

Civility takes years of study and experience; it does not confine itself to social codes but instead allows for idiosyncrasy and exception. It is not fixed or perfect; it requires continual trial and error, introspection, observation.

Sometimes civility must be broken. Sometimes a protest needs full vehemence. But even then, one can keep civility close by. It will come in handy when things get out of hand.

Dismiss civility, and the whole purpose of protest comes apart. Why protest  at all, if not for the sake of a better life?  What life is there, if people cannot see or hear each other or themselves, if they cannot admit to being wrong? No, the modern air is full of shouting, shaming,  name-calling, disparaging, dismissing, and such–and there may be reason for them here and there–but such trends do not have the upper hand, the best plan, or the last say.

I took the photo in Szolnok a few weeks ago.