Celebration of civility

I answered the knock at our front door. Two young men stood there. I didn’t know them, but I knew who and what they represented. The clues were the immaculate short haircuts, dark suits, document cases under arms and American accents. Mormon missionaries. (More properly, from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)

They didn’t get through their first sentence before I interrupted. I told them I didn’t want to hear what they had to say, because I knew who they were, and I thought the whole story nonsense about Joseph Smith[1] being directed by an angel to find buried golden plates with strange writing which he could translate into English, and which eventually became the Book of Mormon. For two minutes I poured out every criticism I knew of their church’s founding and beliefs.

Eventually I drew breath. The two men had stood silent and calmly while I ranted. Now, softly, one of them said: ‘Sir, I would never think to be so rude about your faith. Why do you feel the need to speak like that to us?’

I paused. The calmness with which he spoke took me aback. I realised how discourteous I’d been. I’d gone straight into attack mode. No politeness, no reasonableness, not even a ‘thank you but no thank you’ refusal of their message. Just hostility. I felt ashamed, apologised, and the three of us talked together in an almost friendly way for a few minutes before parting.

I have never done anything like that again. I’ve met many people since then with whom I’ve had profound disagreements, but, thankfully, stayed polite and respectful, as most of them have been too. There’s a lot to be said for civility.

But we live in a time when there’s not much civility around. Soon after we moved into our American home, I met our next-door neighbour. In his first sentence he told me his name and that he was pleased to meet me. In his second sentence he denounced the recently inaugurated President Obama in terms it would not be acceptable to record here. He didn’t know me, or anything about my beliefs, but that didn’t stop him unloading a ton of invective into that first conversation.

That’s not just American politics. The UK has the great tradition that its Prime Minister must answer questions every week to MPs in the House of Commons. Yes, it’s a great tradition, but it’s also embarrassing. Hostile questions are asked and hostile answers given. The sober and upright looking people who govern the country trade insults, and boo and jeer their opponents. Almost never does this verbal brawl yield anything productive.

We could say, ‘Well, that’s politics…’. That doesn’t make it acceptable. Besides, the civility deficit isn’t just in politics. My father spent his working life, other than war-time, working for the Post Office. For a short time he served customers who came to post office counters. He hated that job. Many customers were aggressive from the start, criticising the postal service, demanding immediate attention, never grateful for anything. My Dad moved to back-room administrative work to get away from the hostility. In Bangladesh I watched and listened as church leaders harangued each other in loud and extremely hostile terms. They stopped short of coming to blows only because others separated them. I know occasions from other countries where leaders didn’t stop short and had to be separated before police were called.

It shouldn’t be like that. And it doesn’t have to be.

I want to celebrate civility. Synonyms listed for civility include politeness, courtesy, respect, tact. Those are good things. Who wouldn’t want to live among people who are courteous and show respect? It’s not impossible.

Here are suggestions that would help us be people of civility.

Being careful with our attitudes and our language.
My first visit to America began in Mississippi, a state with such a notorious history of racism there’s a Wikipedia page with an A–Z kind of listing of slavery, riots, lynchings, Ku Klux clan crimes, and the like.[2] But I arrived in 1989, naïvely, thinking attitudes had all changed. Not all of them. As I browsed around a Christian bookshop, the manager whispered to me: ‘Have you noticed how many blacks there are around here?’ It wasn’t an innocent remark; he was disapproving. He’d have disapproved even more if he’d seen the couple who were holding hands as they walked through the shopping mall. Why? Because one was black and the other white.

Racism isn’t the only area where attitudes are the enemy of civility. I began to learn what misogyny really meant when I saw women disrespected in classrooms, and, quite recently, on a university forum to which I belong. A female student had disagreed with a male student, but rather than post a reasonable reply, the male student dismissed the female student’s argument because ‘after all, a woman wouldn’t understand…’ The forum overseer dealt with that remark, but it should never have been written.

These things are wholly reprehensible. All of us need to look deep into our hearts and root out discrimination and prejudice, no matter how minor. And call out the prejudiced opinions and words of others as offensive and unacceptable.

Unless attitudes and language change, we’ll never have civility.

Being willing not to win every issue
The seniors group at my golf club had the kind of ‘extraordinary general meeting’ that causes committees and members to resign. The issue was about changes in the status of the seniors group. I heard views on both sides during the weeks leading up to the meeting. Loud and angry opinions were generating a lot of heat but little light. The day came. Everyone was there. To my surprise the debate was calm. Opinions were certainly divided. Some strongly demanded change and some strongly defended the status quo. After an hour and half the vote was taken. The result: a two vote majority for no change. If just one ‘status quo’ vote had been cast for ‘change’, there would have been a tie. That would have given the chairman the casting vote, and he would have voted for ‘change’. But no casting vote happened because those who didn’t want change had won. The best thing is what happened next. There was no walk-out by those who’d lost. Instead there was acceptance without recriminations. Though nearly half held another opinion, no-one criticised their ‘opponents’, no-one plotted another vote, and no-one left the group. The outcome accepted, everyone got back to playing golf with friends, no matter which way they’d voted at the meeting.

We don’t all think alike. We have different opinions. It’s a reality of life that we don’t always get our own way. Some people can’t accept that. They’re so arrogant they think there’s only two options, ‘my way or the wrong way’. That results only in hostility and division. We will never be civil unless we’re willing not to win on every issue.

Realising that those with whom you disagree are not your enemies
Martin and Effie were a news-conscious couple, always keeping a close eye on current events, and making sure their sources of news were reasonably balanced. Then friends called round unexpectedly, were invited in, but there was trouble when they saw which news channel was on TV. Martin and Effie’s friends strongly disapproved, and made it very clear they wouldn’t stay unless that channel was changed or switched off. Of course the TV was turned off, but that incident was the beginning of the end for that friendship. For the visitors, the channel Martin and Effie watched on TV was decisive for relationships. Staying friends but ‘agreeing to disagree’ was not possible. They couldn’t associate with people who believed differently from them, who didn’t buy into the version of news which was their daily diet. The friendship died.

Maybe partisan TV channels or select social media groups are to blame, though that is probably simplistic. Whatever, it seems society is increasingly retreating into silos, gatherings of like-minded people where already-held beliefs are constantly reinforced. If you are not in their silo, you’re not their friend. Sadly you’re very possibly their enemy because your views threaten them and their group. Then it’s not just friendship which dies. It’s civility too.

To me that’s tragic. I was never brought up to believe that someone with another view about life should be my enemy. Sadly some of the finest Christians I know don’t think that way. I want to challenge those who see others as enemies with the clear message of Jesus: ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you’ (Luke 6:27, repeated in v.35). That wasn’t a philosophical musing of Jesus, nor a gentle suggestion. It was a command. No matter how hostile someone is to you – in their actions or ideas – you don’t respond in kind. You don’t show antagonism. You don’t hate them. Rather, you show kindness, you show love.

When we’re ruled by our emotions or our dogma, we destroy others and do ourselves no favours either.

Recognising an obvious reason people disagree with you
My career was almost entirely in church and charity leadership, ranging from a small new congregation to a mission agency working in near 40 countries and drawing support from all over Britain. Since all major decisions needed broad support, getting the most important changes passed was never easy. My idea of the right strategic direction was often met by hesitancy or opposition. Initially I believed there were two reasons people wouldn’t follow my leadership. One was an overall resistance to change. The other was an unwillingness to let go of their own ideas. It was hard to be patient with either group, and occasionally conversations were less than civil. Then I realised there was a third explanation why people disagreed with me.

It’s remarkable how blind we can be to something we don’t like. We block out possibilities our pride or our stubbornness find unpalatable. The third reason people disagreed with me was because, sometimes, my ideas weren’t all that good. I’d been so sure their plans had little merit, and mine were exactly right, it seemed obvious they should fall in line behind my leadership. Thankfully I learned humility. Faced with opposition, I’d re-examine my proposals, get honest about their strengths and weaknesses, and find that often they were not nearly as good as I’d imagined. So much angst and so many disagreements could have been avoided if only I’d listened at least as much as I’d tried to convince.

Recognising that people may disagree because your ideas aren’t good is an antidote to argument and a catalyst for civility.

Understanding that being uncivil loses you more than you gain

Increasingly I see a prominent notice in many shops and businesses that their staff will not tolerate foul language or aggressive behaviour. Perhaps employers have realised they are legally required to provide a safe working environment for their employees. Perhaps staff have made it clear they’ll resign unless something is done about insults, inappropriate or offensive comments, and even threats.

Some of the most abused are workers in call centres. They can be on the receiving end of appalling tirades from customers who think their bullying will get the result they want. They’re wrong in at least two ways. First, staff can now terminate an abusive caller. Second, aggressive tactics are no way to get the best service. Ranting down the phone doesn’t motivate anyone to try their hardest on behalf of the rude, uncivil caller.

One of the lessons I learned as a young man about social relations is that most times the response you get mirrors the approach you make. If I was friendly and helpful, the person I was talking to would be friendly and helpful. People are happy to deal with someone who’s making their work easier and their day more pleasant. You can’t fake pleasantness. That’s easily spotted, and no-one responds well to it. But, being genuinely civil and cooperative gets a positive reaction. Being uncivil loses you far more than gain.

Being the person you believe you should be
Teenagers are sometimes told to ask themselves, ‘What would your mother think if she could see what you’re doing’. The only thing that question achieves, I think, is to make most teenagers determined to make sure their mothers never see what they’re doing.

But we can use a variation of the ‘what would your mother think?’ question. Imagine you were your work colleague, or your fellow student, or the checkout operator, or a family member – anyone who encounters you a lot. Then imagine what they think and feel about how you speak to them, or treat them, or show respect to them. Would they think you a person of civility, or consider you uncaring, unhelpful, unthoughtful?

If that challenge was taken up I suspect many of us would realise we could improve our attitudes, demeanour, words, actions. If we could imagine being someone we’d really admire, and then change to be like that, we’d not just be civil, we’d be someone others wanted to know.

So, are we being the people we believe we should be? Do we speak well, treat others well, seek the best for those we know? Some may think civility isn’t a big deal. But it is, and we should celebrate civility and make it a core part of our lives.

Extra note: my sincere apologies there’s been a gap in blog posting, caused by study pressures and less than ideal health. Thank you for your patience. I’m hoping to be writing more consistently from now on.

[1] For more on Joseph Smith, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Smith

[2] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:History_of_racism_in_Mississippi