With all of the the talk about “civility” recently, I have been trying to figure out exactly when American became a civilized nation. Was it after we invaded this continent in the first place, pushing aside the original inhabitants (often in violent manners)? Was it after we started a war to gain independence? Or maybe it was after we stopped justifying slavery as a civilized norm? Was it after World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the whatever-you-call our current wars? Or maybe it was after we finally gave all people the right to vote and participate in society equally? What exactly does “civility” mean in a country with a history of violence and mistreatment (both here and abroad) like ours?
Of course, maybe all of the calls for civility would not sound so hollow if so many had not just now started saying anything at all. I mean – black churches were burned… no calls for civility. Immigrant children were separated from their parents… and no calls for civility. The LGBTQA community faces constant attacks, death threats, and harassment daily… and no calls for civility. But a handful of rich white people lose a dinner while some others call for more to be harassed…. and stop the presses! We need civility NOW!
And the weird way people cherry-pick religion to support their new-found desire for civility? Especially when they didn’t say a word when white supremacists marched; or when our leaders said horrible things about people with disabilities, about women, about Muslims, about all kinds of people? Take, for instance, how Bob Vander Plaats focused on how Jesus told people that have disagreements to go and meet with those they have the disagreement with. Of course, the scripture there does not say “first” like Plaats misquotes it as, and secondly, he conveniently leaves out how Jesus again and again spoke out harshly against those he disagreed with publicly – many that He had never met. Plaats makes it seems like the only Biblical way to respond to disagreements is to privately meet with those that you disagree with, or else keep it to yourself. The Bible is not that black and white on this issue by a long shot, and it is unfortunate that Plaats would misrepresent scripture like this.
To a certain degree, I do agree with Plaats that we should get to know people before demonizing them – but I wouldn’t make that an absolute rule to live by. In many cases, it wouldn’t be safe to meet those one disagrees with (I wouldn’t recommend a woman go meet with someone from GamerGate, for instance). But we also have to realize that there is a lot more to be done after we get to know people. Plaats’ scenario is not the solution, it is a place for some to start. Plaats described where he got to know a leader in the LGBTQA community, and they stopped demonizing each other. But the problem is, both sides often can’t have both of their stances in society. We can’t can both “marriage quality for all” AND “traditional definition of marriage” as the law at the same time. It is good that they learned how to get a long. But someday, one of them will be deemed “wrong” by society. One, day, one of them will have to stick with their side and be on the wrong side of society, or change sides.
Sitting down for coffee with those we disagree with will help us get along better with certain people, but will not solve the problems in society if that is all it does. “Civility” is a call by the privileged to stay at the coffee table when they suddenly see society getting up from coffee talk and taking away their privileged spots.
But I still have a problem with people thinking that our society was all that “civilized” in the first place, or that we really need to hang on to it (if it was). Maybe it is because I live in the South and we see through civility so easily down here. People will say “bless your heart!” as way to tell you how ignorant they think you are. So many people live out civility in cities where racism is still rampant. So many people claim to be “civilized” while still being racist themselves. Civility is just too low of a target.
Mike Caulfield made an excellent point that we need decency rather than civility:
Civility is often a push-back to conflict, as a call to ignore disagreements and just get along (even though that is not really what it should be – but that is another issue for another time). Decency is how we treat people even when we disagree – or even how we call out people that aren’t decent to others (sometimes decency requires you to stand against those who aren’t decent). There is nothing wrong with disagreeing. But if your response to finally receiving some push back for the way you treat others is to scream “we need civility!!!!” when you have never done so when others are mistreated, that is not decent. Civility – for too long of a time – has kept different standards for different people. You can’t have one response to one type of harassment (telling men to grab women by their….) and another response to another lesser type of harassment (getting booted out of a restaurant) and still be “decent.” But you can have different responses and still be “civilized.” Civility never was that great of a thing.