Thursday, February 4, 2010

Some Thoughts on Civility

President Obama noted there is an absence of civility in our politics at the meeting of influential figures oddly named the National Prayer Breakfast recently (do they pray while eating breakfast--do they contemplate prayer while doing so--do they pray specifically for the nation prior to, during, or after breakfast?).  It happens I'm reading a book by the English diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson called Good Behaviour, which is a kind of study of ideals of civility in history, and so was particularly interested in his comments which, alas, seem fairly uninspired, and even routine.

That there is such an absence certainly can't be doubted, of course, and it seems quite appropriate that the President and others point this out.  Indeed, the character of politics has become so rancorous that it it even seems appropriate to question his motives in commenting on the need for civility--what advantage does he seek to gain by doing so?  Is he trying to paint his opponents as rabid as well as misguided?  Does he seek to deflect criticism that he is detached and unconcerned by painting himself as a gentleman?

Thus far in my reading Nicolson has given his thoughts regarding ancient Greek and Roman concepts of civility, that of Confucian China, that of chivalry, that of the court of Louis XIV, that (it seems) of 19th century Germany, and that of the English.  I haven't finished his book but, being cynical as well as stoic, my guess is that he will conclude that true civility is personified by the English gentleman, who will very much resemble Nicolson himself.  As he was a successful and accomplished diplomat, I suspect he was quite civil, and I tend to agree with him that civility when it degenerates into mere affectation and manners is not admirable, and doesn't necessarily insure behavior most would consider appropriate.  Louis' courtiers had fine manners, but also apparently relieved themselves throughout the halls and under the stairways while at court.

Civility, I think, follows naturally when one tries to intelligently and reasonably resolve problems in combination with others.  Intelligence and reason should tell us that vituperation and caustic criticism, hysteria, inflammatory speech, etc. will not be conducive to arranging a resolution.  We don't thereby work well and play well with others (there was something about this trait in old school report cards, I think). 

But I can't help but wonder whether civility is possible in politics, or in any kind of dispute, today.  This isn't a thoughtful age, and perhaps it cannot be, where communication of most every thought is made immediately.  The technology seems to encourage us to say what we think and feel at every moment in the shortest and least considered manner possible.  Twitter, email, facebook, etc. are not conducive to communication of any length; so, what is communicated are only those thoughts, desires and opinions that can be communicated in a sentence or two, or even in a phrase.  Our language, they say, is an essential part of our civilization, even of our being capable of civilization, i.e. being civilized.  When it has become important simply to say something, or react, as quickly as possible, language as a way of expressing ourselves, and thinking, becomes debased, as do we.

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