Friday, January 29, 2016

The Practice of Civility

"Clean and Clear"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

This morning when I got up I was inundated by story after story about last night’s Republican Presidential Debate. It all got to be too much for me and I had to turn off the news and put down the paper.

I think we all should be able to disagree with one another and I’m all in favor of lively debate; but disagreement and debate don’t equate with vile insults and personal attacks. That’s why I had to stop reading and hearing about what went on yesterday – the plethora of uncensored personal attacks and “over the top” insults that were being hurled about were just too much for me to bear. I felt somehow as if the air was being polluted and poisoned and I was suffering from its ill effects.

The more I think about it, insults, personal attacks and hate speech seem to be a common commodity in our culture nowadays, especially in this election season. I hardly have to listen to a presidential debate to find all the ugly words people use against their fellow human beings, all I need do is to read one of many available “twitter feeds,” and I  am quickly immersed in all the muck and the mire.

I recently came across this Letter to the Editor published in the New York Times under the title, Bring Back Civility:

We as a culture have grown coarser and cruder in tone,
in many respects our nation has ruptured with civility.
The advent of digital communications has allowed us to engage in
consequence-free hostility –
hostile messaging, abrupt emails, and caustic online posts
have normalized an uglier and less empathic side of human behavior
and colored our politics and entertainment as well.

I’ve been thinking about this notion of civility – treating one another with common courtesy and respect even when we disagree. It seems to me that the practice of civility is a necessary condition for a healthy society and civility is most definitely a necessary discipline to be practiced on any spiritual path toward deeper peace and greater truth.

A few years back, Law Professor, Stephen Carter, wrote a book about our contemporary culture in which he argued that the growing lack of civility toward each other in this country is a slippery slope leading to our downfall and eventual decay.

Professor Carter told of a time back in the 19th century before the advent of automobiles and interstate highways when the primary mode of travel for most people in the United States was by train. Back in those days, unless you were extremely rich you rode on trains that looked like “cattle cars” – unadorned boxes on rails equipped with nothing more than hardwood benches.

The reason traveling together worked as well as it did back then was due to the fact that everyone understood their obligation to one another as they sat side by side crammed together shoulder to shoulder on those rows of benches on crowded trains.

As a matter of fact, most people back then owned a little travel guidebook that spelled out proper behavior while traveling on the railroads. The book advised: whispering, loud talking immoderate laughing and singing should not be indulged by any passenger. The guidebook also advised train conductors to rebuke anyone who indulged personal preferences at the expense of other passengers.”

Maybe we need another such guidebook to be distributed among all our fellow citizens as we travel through life together in these chaotic contemporary times. At the very least we need to reclaim the importance of practicing civility - treating each person with dignity and respect whether or not we agree with them or even like them.

There is an ancient Hebrew proverb:

Death and life are in the power of the tongue.

Now more than ever we need to use our words to create life and not to bring about death and destruction.

1 comment:

  1. I think that is true. I'm not sure why anonymity, or electronic communication should bring this out within humanity though. I wonder if people are just reacting so quickly before they have a chance to pause and respond more mindfully. It is so easy to quickly type an email and press the send button and then afterwards regret it. The consequence-free idea is interesting. Have we really lost our own inner rudder on what is right and wrong ethically? I'm juts trying to understand it. A friend of mind still sends me long handwritten letters...such a reflective and contemplative way to communicate. I guess all we can do, as ever, is communicate as peacefully as we can as an individual. And like you, close the windows to all the insults and attacks out there. Thanks for sharing this. xxx