Civility. Let’s hope it’s contagious!

A soft answer turneth away wrath. Proverbs 15:1 KJV

Five reasons for tackling this topic now, and in this blog:

1. After last weekend’s horrendous and tragic events in Tucson, there’s been an outbreak of civility across the land. Will it become pandemic? Will we find it everywhere? Or will it be confined to a few pockets here and there? Will it prove enduring? Or will it be snuffed out just as quickly as it began? Will civility itself prevail? Or will civility as an abstraction simply become a topic of conversation? All of us hope to see a good outcome give some scrap of meaning to the recent evil.

2. Our community needs an intrinsic civility to accomplish its work. Here “our community” is a big tent covering all those working to help humankind live well on the real world – drawing on its resources; caring for the environment, habitat, species, and ecosystems; and protecting us from Earth’s threats. The community is diverse: it comprises natural and social scientists, practitioners, policymakers, journalists, educators and many others. It is international. Every facet of our work requires cooperation, collaboration, mutual respect – in short, that we be civil to one another.[1] It is not by accident that many of the people involved in this work worldwide are civil servants. Maintaining this civility in an increasingly stressful, fast-paced culture is proving to be as great a challenge as any scientific or engineering tests we face.

3. We’re also dependent on civility in our host society at large. However, even as within our community we hold courtesy and graciousness in high regard, and struggle to keep it from slipping away, we find ourselves increasingly dependent on civility in the larger society. Rudeness and discourtesy in the larger public arena? It can sometimes choke off the societal benefit that might otherwise accrue from advances in knowledge and understanding about the world on which we live. Angry and inflammatory rhetoric stifle consensus-building. Lack of civility jeopardizes the social contract on which the advance of knowledge and understanding relies.

4. Because we don’t have to just hope civility is contagious. We can go one better. We can make it contagious. For each of us, civility is a choice. We may be goaded, we may be provoked, but no matter how extreme the aggravation, now matter how undeserved the provocation, our response is in the last measure fully under our control. When we are rude, or incite to anger, or strike back, it’s because we decided to let loose the dogs. In a recent column, David Brooks suggests that the roots of civility lie in four unlikely sources: failure, sin, weakness, and ignorance. Worth the read!

5. Oh… the last reason for tackling the topic of civility today? Simply this: tomorrow we honor the memory of a great civil rights leader, himself assassinated. Martin Luther King, Jr. was great in part precisely because he subscribed to the idea of civil disobedience, as opposed to violence and destruction, and because he convinced an entire people that they could achieve justice through peaceful means. We should all be glad he did.


[1]As described in a post on August 13, this quest for community shaped my personal educational experience and my choice of career in powerful ways, which I’m only beginning to appreciate fully a half-century later.

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