George W. Bush defined “civility” this way: “Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment. It is a determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos.” This past week we have witnessed a compete breakdown of civility on a world stage, on our most public stage, the center of our democracy.
Crises of incivility are always frightening and ugly to see. Things get broken. People get hurt. We come to realize that the part of human nature we thought we had under control can break through. The survival of the fittest, fight makes right, and us vs them eclipse our better natures. The rules and laws we had agreed on get thrown out. The insights of being Christian are forgotten. Our education and study of history are ignored as blind rage and chaos explode.
Incivility doesn’t usually come out of nowhere. It is a slow burn that is allowed to smolder. We can add kindling to it with negativity and thoughts of distrust rather than cooperation. After a while the thoughts we have nurtured become words. We send them out to test if they will stand in their shocking reality or not. And if the shocking and hateful words become normalized, we can move to action and begin to do atrocities of violence we would in the beginning have never imagined.
The issue of civility is a starting point in relationships. The first step in couples’ therapy is often to dial back the unkind and even vicious rhetoric and to consciously practice being respectful and polite to one another. There needs to be a cessation of interrupting and over talking and a learning of how to listen without preparing a rebuttal or defense. Sometimes, civility must begin with ceasing physical and hands-on altercations. Only when civility has been re-established can connection be worked on.
Civility is a foundation for living with others in a peaceful and non aggressive way. It does not depend on agreeing with another person or group or even liking them. It may involve separating those who are harming others from the community. Civility is a decision to restrain what injures and hopefully to find in ourselves tenderness and respect for one another, realizing that everyone has suffered enough already. Our nation needs the words of Isaiah: “Come now, let us reason together.”