How to be civil in an uncivil world

Ms Hudson’s piece is marvelous.  She is a wonderful writer with insights on civility that we all need to think about.  This copy is from a site it was posted on with shares.  The site is called Civic Renaissance.  I advise everyone to sign up for this site and enjoy some excellent writing.

On Plato and civility: reflecting on Plato during his traditionally recognized birthday month, and civility for International Civility Month + win a YEAR of WONDRIUM!

Gracious reader,

May is the month that scholars traditionally deem to be the birthday of Plato. Also, certain authorities have declared that May is International Civility Awareness Month.

The School of Athens, a fresco by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael, painted between 1509 and 1511.

I’ve been thinking of both of these topics of late.

Plato and civility are never far from my mind, but I recently emerged from an experience that caused me to lean and reflect on them all the more.

(For those new to the Civic Renaissance community, my upcoming book on civility will be published by St. Martin’s press in May 2023.)

A recent, tumultuous business transaction prompted me to consider how civility applies to the real world—a and to ask a question that you may have considered, too.

How can we be civil in an uncivil world?

Is it possible for people who are committed to the principles of decency, courteousness, and treating others with basic respect to succeed and thrive when others do not abide by these principles?

Or is it a hopeless cause?

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The story

In a recent business situation, the opposite party lacked all manner of basic decency.

Their behavior did not quite reach the level of illegal — although it did come perilously close—they were certainly unethical. More than anything, however, they were just terribly unprofessional and unpleasant to work with.

But their conduct reminded me of the importance of basic civility that many of us take for granted. It is only when norms of courtesy and respect are broken that we fully appreciate their importance to helping us co exist with others in society.

It’s an important truth: we note and appreciate civility most in its absence.

I define civility as the basic respect we are owed by virtue of our shared dignity and equal moral worth as human beings. We owe this to others regardless of who they are, what they look like, where they are from, whether or not we like them, and whether or not they can do anything for us.

I live and breathe civility and have studied social norms across history and culture— including countless instances of when they have been broken. I was still taken aback by how unpleasant the entire interaction was because of the absence of civility and mutual respect.

From the outset the opposite party was more than rude. They dispensed of basic courtesies from the get go. They didn’t even attempt to appear generous, amicable, or conscientious.

They were single-minded in their aim: all things personal aside, they wanted to get the absolute best deal possible at any cost.

Business is business, I’m sure they were thinking.

They forgot that there was a person on the other end of the transaction.

This resulted in me feeling used, squeezed, bullied, nickeled and dimed throughout negotiations.

It brought out the worst in me.

Instead of making me want to help them or instead of making me want to reach an agreement of mutual benefit, their conduct inflamed my baser nature, tempting me to go “scorched-earth,” ensuring they didn’t get what they wanted even if it hurt me, too.

I was frustrated by the fact that we were operating on two different moral and ethical levels.

I tried to stay high when they went low, yet every grating exchange with them made me want to sink to their level, where all bets and codes of decency were off.

In the end, rather miraculously, we came to an agreement.

I managed to prevent my baser nature from winning out. I was able to rise above the pettiness and the vindictiveness that I wanted to respond with— a facet of the human personality that we all share when we feel we are under threat.

But it wasn’t an experience I particularly enjoyed.

I was left with feelings of frustration and exhaustion. I felt like I had been disrespected and degraded.

I also felt disappointed in myself.

Most of us have probably had thoughts like this during and after interactions with people who are willing to do whatever it takes to get the upper hand:

Should I have been tougher?

Was my commitment to civility in the face of incivility a handicap?

Did my attempt to uphold my values allow me to be taken advantage of?

This experience has caused me to consider the practical importance of civility in life.

Won’t the person who is willing to go low—one who is willing to throw off the shackles of decency and civility—always win out?

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How to be good in bad world

“How to be civil in an uncivil world” is a variation of an important question that people have been considering for a long, long time: how can a good person succeed in a world of evil?

Renaissance thinker and author of The PrinceNiccolo Machiavelli, who we have explored in a past CR issue, observed that, in history those who tend to gain and maintain power appear to have morals publicly, but privately dispense with their values the moment they get in the way.

“Politics have no relation to morals,” wrote Machiavelli.

Also in The Prince: “Thus it is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, religious, and also to be so; but you must have the mind so disposed that when it is needful to be otherwise you may be able to change to the opposite qualities.”

In other words, Machiavelli argues that one who wishes to be powerful must be willing to dispense with the moral bounds of civility if the need arises.

While the civil person is contained by their commitment to civility, the uncivil person can do whatever is necessary to win.

Socrates—the Greek philosopher Plato’s teacher, and the protagonist in his dialogues—took a different view. He would take issue with how Machiavelli defines “winning.”

Socrates said that justice is to the soul what health is to the body. If a person gets the better end of a business deal, wins an argument, or comes out on top of a political battle, but does so by cutting corners and being dishonest, he hasn’t really “won” anything.

His soul is unhealthy and sick.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates attacks the poet Homer, the educator of Greece, because he doesn’t like the values that Homer’s poems promote.

Achilles, the protagonist of The Iliad, embodies the ethics of revenge, slaughter, and vainglory.

Odysseus, the protagonist of The Odyssey, embodies the ethic of wiliness and deceit in order to come out on top of any situation.

Socrates purposes a new ethic: one that loves wisdom.

He wants to trade the ethic of revenge, “might makes right,” and vindictiveness with a shared love and pursuit of goodness, beauty, and truth.

Socrates believes that anyone who acts with injustice does so out of ignorance—after all, who would willingly make themselves sick? Who would knowingly choose sickness of the soul?

“Living well and living rightly are the same thing,” Socrates said in The Crito.

Socrates argues that a just person has an excellent and healthy soul, and the function of a just soul and person is to seek the justice and soulish health of others, too.

Socrates noted that it is not then the function of the just man to harm either friend or anyone else. Seeking to harm is an act of injustice, and therefore harms the harmer. The function of the just person is to seek the good of others, friends and enemies alike.

In a related sentiment, Abraham Lincoln once said, “Do I not defeat my enemy when I make him my friend?”

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Final thoughts: on virtuous and vicious cycles, and on unbundling people and situations

There are three thoughts I’d like to leave with you.

First, we should not underestimate the power we each have to promote trust and civility in our world.

Second, learning to “unbundle” people and situations can help us mitigate the vicious cycles of incivility that are so detrimental to a free and flourishing society.

Third, we must remember when we encounter incivility in our modern world — and we invariably will, as the problem of incivility is endemic to human nature and human social life — we have a choice about how to respond.

Norms of decency and courtesy comprise an unwritten social contract between us and our fellow citizens. We take this contract for granted, which is why when this bond is broken, we are surprised, offended, and dismayed. When people don’t uphold their end of the social contract, we lose a little bit of faith and trust in society and others.

When that trust in others and society is corroded by the thoughtlessness and incivility of others, often we are less likely to act in good faith and civility in our future interactions. Our less-than-civil response to others may in turn cause them to be unkind to others with which they engage.

And so the vicious cycle continues.

My recent experience with bad actors made me appreciate those today who claim that “all bets are off” when it comes to decency in public life. We often hear things like, “The other side has gone to a whole new low. How can I be expected to stay civil?”

We also see evidence of the “vicious cycle” all around us in politics today. When one figure breaks norms and bounds of decency everyone else feels like they have to so as to keep up.

We contribute to this trust-corroding ripple effect when we are uncivil. Others do, too, with their incivility. The incivility of others often tempts us to relinquish the shackles of decency in order to “win.”

But we must resist—for our own sake, for others, and for society.

We cannot control the conduct of others.

We can only control ourselves.

We must also learn to mentally unbundle people and situations. This means not assuming things about their character because of one deed, word, or interaction you had with them. We must learn to unbundle situations. This means not allowing one bad interaction or instance to corrode your trust in society in general.

This is much easier in theory than in practice. This is much easier said than done. but again, in the end we cannot control others. We can only control ourselves.

Socrates and Machiavelli remind us of why we are civil in the first place. The reason to be civil isn’t instrumental. It isn’t just a tool of success. As we’ve seen, sometimes it can be an impediment to success. Civility is instead a disposition, an outgrowth of seeing people as they really are: as beings with irreducible moral worth and deserving of respect. This is worthy for it’s own sake, even if it means we don’t gain the upper hand of every business dealing.

Being uncivil is poison to the soul. When we treat people as means to our ends, it hurts and degrades them, but also us, too.

Machiavelli is famous for the amoral aphorism: “The ends justifies the means.”

Socrates would respond, “But what is your end?”

No earthly battle is worth compromising your soul for.

Here are some questions to consider:

  1. Can you empathize with my experience? Have you had an experience where it felt like decency was not a match for indecency? Write to me with your story and how you dealt with it at ah@alexandraohudson.com
  2. Who do you find more persuasive: Machiavelli or Socrates? Do you think we can be civil in an uncivil world? Or will incivility always win out?

Thank you Ms. Hudson for a great piece of writing and morality.  

Is Civility Overrated?

be fucking civil

All the talk these days by political pundits, news reporters, columnists, journalists and of course politicians seems directed towards decrying the lack of civility in politics.  It is common knowledge that there is a war between the Democrats and Republicans going on.  Each side sees the other as bent on destroying democracy, mom, god and apple pie.  They have become bitter enemies, and no one is taking prisoners.

To study this problem more, I decided to invoke Santayana’s famous dictum on “those who forget the past.”  I fired up my trusty time machine and selected four eras and events from the past where it seems civility had also been called for.  As you perhaps know, when journeying to the past, you become invisible and there is no way that you can influence any past events.  This is in accord with Novikov’s Self-Consistency Principle.  I report on these events in the following four narratives as I witnessed and remembered the discussions.

Moses and Rameses – 1440 BCE

Moses:  Let my people go

Rameses:   Not on your life

Moses:  Then I will bring numerous plagues to smite you Egyptians

Rameses:  Go ahead.  See if I give a dam

A few weeks later:

Rameses:  Look Moses, can’t we be civil about this

Moses:  Sure, let my people go

Rameses:  Not happening

Moses:  Then I will bring a new plague that will strike all first-born Egyptians dead

Rameses:  I thought we agreed to be civil.  Can’t we discuss this more?

Moses:  Let my people go

Rameses:  The hell with you Israelites

One week later:

Rameses:  Moses, I thought we agreed to be civil.  Look how many of my people you killed

Moses:  Let my people go

Rameses:  To hell with you, get out and don’t come back.  I hope I never see you again

Moses:  Now that is what I call being civil.  Goodbye!

in pursuit of civility

War of Independence – 1776 CE

King George:  You dam colonists.  Who do you think you are?

Benjamin Franklin:  We are your loyal servants my lord, who merely want to be treated with the same rights as Englishmen in your country

King George:  You are low-lifes with no civility.  I can’t believe you dumped all that tea in the harbor?  Furthermore, you don’t even have tea-time each day like we do.

Benjamin Franklin:  My lord, the customs in our country are very different

King George:  Different my ass, you people are nothing but barbarians

Benjamin Franklin:  All we want is to eliminate taxation without representation

King George:  Do I look like I care what you want?  I’m the king

Benjamin Franklin:  I am afraid we are prepared to go to war over this issue my lord

King George:  We want to have a civil discussion and you dare to threaten me?

Benjamin Franklin:  What does civility mean to you my lord?

King George:  Your people stop whining about our taxes and get their asses back to work

Benjamin Franklin:  I will bring your message to my people your lord, but I don’t think they will agree

King George:  Then we will crush them like we crush all the enemies of the empire.  They will be begging for tea and not coffee.  You are dismissed.

12-years-slave

 

Somewhere in Mississippi – 1860 CE

Plantation Overseer:  How many times Moses have I told you that you can’t run away?  You are going to get another whipping boy

Moses:  Yes, master

Plantation Overseer:  How many lashes do you think you should get Moses?

Moses:  I don’t rightly know master

Plantation Overseer:  Look Moses, I want to be civil about this, so I am asking your opinion.  I was thinking that since it was fifty last time, we should add ten making it sixty.  That would be ten for each time you ran away – agree?

Moses:  Go to hell!

Plantation Overseer:  Mind your mouth boy.  I thought we were having a civil and friendly conversation and now you go ahead and insult me with your vile mouth.  I am going to add ten lashes to your whipping.  That will teach you to be more civil!

Moses:  Go to hell!

four-components-of-etiquette-33-638

Hollywood Producers Office – March 15, 2018 CE

Producer:  Look Emily, I would like for you to get on the couch and take your clothes off

Emily (Aspiring actress): I don’t understand what taking my clothes off has to do with an audition

Producer:  Well, you have heard of “quid pro quo” right?  Well, I just want you to do me a little favor and then I will do you a bigger favor

Emily:  And what if I refuse?

Producer:  Can’t we be civil about this?  We are both adults

Emily:  I do not plan to screw my way to a role in your production

Producer:  I am tired of trying to be civil, now get your ass on that couch

Emily:  Unlock the door!  Please let go of me!

Producer:  Just relax, you will enjoy it more

Emily:  Get off me, I will scream!

Producer:  Can’t you be more civil Emily?  I am just doing this for your own good

Emily:  Fuck you, get off me!

Producer:  Not until I finish what we started

Emily:  Crying

Producer:  See it wasn’t so bad was it? Maybe after this we can be more civil to each other

Emily:  Screw you!

trump on civility

Well, that is all the time I had for my time journeys. I report the above narratives to the best of my memory.  I was wondering what messages or meaning I could ascribe to these events in terms of the problem of civility that I mentioned earlier.  I know Trump, McConnell, Graham and many others on both sides of the aisle have all called for more civility in politics.

Somehow though, I question when and where civility is appropriate and where a good “Screw you” is more appropriate.  I have no doubt that civility is of value in some circumstances but like any value, perhaps it can be overdone.

death of civility

Webster’s defines the term Civility as: 

1:  Archaic training in the humanities

2a: Civilized conduct, especially COURTESYPOLITENESS

b: A polite act or expression

If we dismiss the first definition, we are left with courtesy and politeness as being the sine qua non of civility.  But I ask, who and when should we be courteous to?  Should we be courteous to:

  • Someone who is robbing us
  • Someone who is trying to kill us
  • Someone who is obviously lying to us
  • Someone who is preaching hate and fear
  • Someone who is taking money from the poor to give to the rich
  • Someone who will deny others the chance for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

sarahhuckabeesanders1

There is a time for civility.  I have no doubt.  But there is a time for anger and indignation.

It takes more courage to stand up to bullies and wrong doers than to merely stand passively by and acquiesce to calls for civility.  To conclude, I observe this about civility:

  • It is often a call by the more powerful to the weaker to be subdued and humbled
  • It can be used to hide evil of the first order and should be suspect
  • It is of merit only when it is reciprocated

Beware the Trojan horse!  Beware those who want civility without justice, truth and freedom!

Time for Questions:

Are you always civil?  When are you not civil?  Why?  Do you agree that civility is not always a virtue?  Why or why not?

Life is just beginning.

“In politics, disagreements between opponents is the sign of a healthy and flourishing democracy. When politicians show too much deference to each other, fundamental ethical questions are likely to get buried and power can go unchecked. Meyer points out that insults are a non-violent way of curbing the excesses of the powerful, and he argues that politics must therefore ‘allow for a boorishness typically at odds with polite society’. Similarly, Kennedy argues: ‘The civility movement is deeply at odds with what an invigorated liberalism requires: intellectual clarity; an insistence upon grappling with the substance of controversies; and a willingness to fight loudly, openly, militantly, even rudely for policies and values….” Meyer, ‘Liberal Civility and the Civility of Etiquette’, 79; Kennedy, ‘The Case against “Civility”’, 85.

The above exercpt is from:  “Six Questions About Civility” by Nicole Billante and Peter Saunders, 2002

 

 

 

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