Civility and campaigns need not be incompatible.
With the charge toward the finish line in November 2020 starting to accelerate, it is a good time to examine the nationwide efforts to restore what was once an American polite society.
Civility, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has upper limits of “politeness, courtesy and consideration.” The lower boundaries include “the minimum degree of courtesy required in a social situation” and “an absence of rudeness.”
Long before that, though, “civility” denoted “the position or status of being a citizen” and then developed to signify more: “civil order,” “orderliness in a state or region,” the “absence of anarchy and disorder.”
The last definition is vital because so much political discourse has descended into the dirty depths of anarchy and disorder.
Politics has fervently earned its reputation while much of our commercial society tries to court us with respect, thanks and praise for the fact that we’ve bought from the firm before.
Here are some examples gleaned from today’s email stream:
“Thanks for reading.” “We hope this message to be useful.” “Thanks for your purchase.” “8 friendliest cities in the world.” “What’s playing next?” and “Your dream home awaits.”
The New York Times magazine did a piece prior to Christmas that said, “Civility can pit you against an opponent who will happily fight dirty while insisting that you abide by Queensberry Rules.”
To underscore that point, the article said, “The civility of manners is intent on lubricating our interactions, neutralizing our conflicts in a way that allows us to live peaceably together, but the civility of morals often does the opposite: It obligates us to interrogate what it means to keep the peace, and at what cost.
It requires us to be vigilant, finding ways to keep our civic commitments even when our opponents abandon them, refuse to play fair and act in bad faith.”
The political scientist Ian Ward contends “an ethic of generalized niceness” can actually be, in many circumstances, “a means by which citizens conform to the requirements of unjust social arrangements” — we’ve been suckered, yet “niceness” forbids us to do anything about it. Ward reminds us of one of the most eloquent rejections of civility-as-niceness, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Some clergymen criticized demonstrations in Birmingham for disturbing the surface calm of a so-called peace: King chided them for putting manners over morality.
“I am sorry,” he wrote, “That your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.”
The article concludes, “Deep down, we probably all know it’s not just civility we’re missing, but decency.”
Why don’t our pollsters ask voters: “Who will you cast your ballot for? Someone who is civil or someone who is cantankerous, rude, crude and interrupts the speaker repeatedly?”