Civility is actually a hard word to define. It's sort of like what one Supreme Court justice wrote several years ago about pornography, the subject of a case the Supreme Court was reviewing. Justice Potter Stewart held in an opinion about the case Jacobellis v. Ohio:
... that the Constitution protected all obscenity except "hard-core pornography". He wrote, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it ...
I think we all likewise know civility — and also its opposite, incivility — whenever we see it or do it.
|What civility "looks like"|
We hear so much about expressions of hate today. When one is filled with hate one tends to be uncivil. And one often feels entirely justified in his or her hatefulness and incivility.
Our incivility is very often a reaction to somebody else's hatefulness and incivility. Incivility thus breeds incivility.
On the other hand, I find in my day-to-day experience that civility breeds civility. I try to smile and say hello to strangers I encounter — say, when I am at the coffee dispensers while I'm eating breakfast at Panera. I may make some non-threatening comment such as, "I see you like the dark roast coffee. So do I!"
That word, "non-threatening," is crucial. I think hatred, incivility, and all their countless synonyms have to do with our feeling threatened by someone in some way. When we feel another person may be a threat, it is very hard for us to smile at them and be nice and civil to them.
If we feel threatened, then — if only at some perhaps unconscious level of our mental apparatus — we will experience fear. Our hatred and incivility are apt to be the result of our fear.
We fear, of course, any apparent threat to our own personal lives and well-being. But we likewise react negatively to anyone or anything that we interpret as menacing our families and loved ones.
By extension from that fact, we tend to include within our personal circle — i.e., the people we don't feel threatened by — certain individuals who aren't our own family members but whose friendship we trust in and believe in. And by further extension, we tend to include within our personal circle of people we trust and believe in other people we don't actually know, as long as they seem to be "just like us."
All that is normal and natural.
The question is: When we encounter people who don't, on the surface, seem to be "just like us," how do we nevertheless find it within ourselves the ability to be civil to them?
In the area in which I live, including the court I live on, I encounter lots of people who don't look like me and in various ways don't act just like me. Often, this is due to racial/ethnic differences, but it can also be due to age differences, gender differences, etc. etc. etc.
I have found that the best way to deal with such social situations is with civility. I smile. I act in a friendly way toward everyone. And I find that my smiling civility, my niceness, and my friendliness are almost always returned in kind to me.
Civility, I think, is that approach to living which brings out the best in us. Incivility, on the other hand, brings out the beast in us.
That's enough for my first installment about civility. Stay tuned for later installments ....