What is Civility?
With the 4th of July drawing near and in honor of our founding fathers, it’s time to put aside political hostility and re-establish civilized behavior. Civility is the ability to interact with others while demonstrating courtesy and integrity. Without civility, communication simply isn’t possible. Civilized interaction is so important to a society that it was once taught to all young scholars. 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, established by the Jesuits in 1595, were considered an essential component of a well-rounded education. The teaching of these rules was a common practice. In fact, these very rules were once copied down by a young man named George Washington as an assignment from his schoolmaster. It is clear that George Washington learned his intended lesson. He was most definitely a civilized man.
The father of civility in America was Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. A Puritan, Williams was one of the first to imagine public life in America as an exercise in constructive conversation. Williams’ ideas regarding civility and the respect for all cultures were at odds with the Puritan establishment of Massachusetts. Frustrated with the inability of church leaders to listen or compromise with opposing viewpoints, Williams eventually left Massachusetts in 1637. Upon leaving Massachusetts, Williams began to study ways in which groups of people could come together and communicate without hostility for the common good.
Roger Williams believed that it was the duty of citizens to work together. “Each individual must guarantee the same rights to others that he claims for himself.” Civility is what allows people to work together to improve society. It preserves public peace and enables human beings to engage in the cooperative relationships necessary to live together. Williams asserted that “tolerance, common courtesy, friendship, and truthfulness” were the cornerstones for engaging in public dialogue. The boundaries that guaranteed civility were: Courteous conversation, listening with integrity and genuineness, showing respect for one’s opponent, and refraining from personal insults.
Our Founders Agreed
Our founding fathers used the teachings of Roger Williams and the Jesuits to build this nation. They put aside differences and listened to one another. We don’t have to search for ways to engage in civilized conversation. That blueprint was created long ago. These ideas are worth emulating. If we leave out the civility component in our interactions with one another, we’ve left out the glue that binds us together. So, as we join together to celebrate our independence, let us also celebrate our founding fathers for giving us their wisdom. The following expectations were compiled from the writings of the Jesuits, Roger Williams and George Washington:
The Expectations of Civility
• Respect the rights and opinions of others.
• Engage in courteous conversation.
• Try not to embarrass others either intentionally or unintentionally.
• Listen with integrity and genuineness.
• Pay attention to the tone of your written and verbal communications.
• Even though you may disagree with someone, try to avoid negative facial expressions.
• Be sincere.
• Show consideration for time. Be brief when necessary.
• Avoid condescension. Others may know more than you think.
• When someone has tried valiantly and failed, avoid criticism.
• Do not reprimand others publicly. Allow people their dignity.
• Avoid criticism when you also might bear blame in the matter.
• Celebrate the achievements and positive qualities of others.
• Use caution when offering unsolicited advice.
• Listen and be flexible in your opinions.
• Demonstrate and encourage tolerance.
• Avoid gossip and don’t speak ill of someone not present.
• Show respect for your opponents and refrain from personal insults.
• Display gentleness in all human interaction.
• Keep your conscience alive.
On a recent broadcast of NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday,” Scott Simon asked a very simple question of Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.) “Is every American entitled to eat?” Smith, who supports the Trump White House’s proposal to make vast cuts to food stamps, couldn’t seem to answer the question. He waffled a bit and tried to skirt the question. So Scott Simon asked again, “Is every American entitled to eat?” Once again, Rep. Smith tried to ignore the question and provide a non-answer. So Simon tried a third time. Smith simply couldn’t answer the question. As an American, let me simplify this for Adrian Smith. We are one of the richest countries on Earth. The Declaration of Independence guarantees each of us “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” So, Rep. Smith, the next time someone asks if every American is entitled to eat, the correct answer is, “Yes!
Our military leaders have long known that the best way to protect our national and world security is to adopt a two-part approach: diplomacy and a ready military. Our military relies on the State Department and the United Nations to push diplomatic solutions, so that military intervention isn’t always necessary. Secretary Mattis, along with other military leaders, recognize that it’s better to stop conflict before it starts. It was General Mattis who said to members of Congress during a National Security Council meeting, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.” The United Nations is another important arm of our diplomacy.
The United Nations was created to serve as a diplomatic solution to prevent another World War. 60 million people were killed in World War II. If war-related famine and disease deaths are added in, that total jumps to 80 million. After World War II, it became clear that diplomacy was critical if we were to prevent another world war. And the diplomacy works. Since 1996, UN peacekeeping efforts have contributed to a 40% decline in conflict around the world. The United States relies on UN peacekeepers for military support as well. After the September 11 attacks, United Nations peacekeepers were among the first “boots on the ground.” Today, there are 88,500 peacekeepers deployed throughout the world.
It is the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency that serves as the world’s nuclear inspector. The UN prosecutes war criminals and strengthens international law. The UN has adopted a global strategy to combat terrorism and the UN’s International Court of Justice helps settle international disputes, so that war can be avoided. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime works with the United States and our neighbors to stop drug trafficking, money-laundering and smuggling.
So, as the government pushes for a “skinnier” budget, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We need diplomacy. Congress needs to say, “No” to the proposal to cut the State Department budget by 32% and the United Nations budget by 32%. General Mattis was right. If we don’t invest in diplomacy, he will have to buy more bullets.