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Be proactive in nurturing civility

Guest post by the Rev. Dr. Charles Kniker

We’ve all experienced incivility. A store clerk responds curtly. A driver cuts you off. A talk show host spews crude language and torpedoes alternative perspectives. A blog questions a veteran’s patriotism. A schoolbook censor attacks a defending teacher of being an atheist.

Then you hear the purported true story of a truck driver harassed by motorcyclists at a restaurant. They try to provoke a fight by taunting remarks and deliberately spilling coffee over his scrambled eggs. The trucker calmly pays for his meal and leaves. Sneering, a motorcyclist says to the waitress, “He sure wasn’t much of a man.” She replied, “And not much of a driver either; he ran over three cycles as he pulled out.” Admit it….we like that story.

It is no wonder that writers across the theological spectrum have concluded that our national moral compass is broken, our families’ value systems bankrupted. Even in the higher education world, stories abound about the lack of civility, from students’ paying more attention to ipods than lectures to faculty challenging colleagues more with sarcasm than scholarship.

As citizens or members of a faith community, we have a responsibility, if not the duty, to offer a model of civility that can make a difference in our local communities, the nation and the world. But how?

Another time that called for civility
Almost 2000 years ago people in the Roman empire had to answer the same question. It was a world with a growing tapestry of colors, cultures, languages, although there was one dominant political power – Rome. Its leaders dealt harshly with dissenters. To newly converted Christians in Asia Minor, the writer of I Peter offers simple advice, “If you want to survive, be civil.”

In that long ago time, there were many examples of brutal and demeaning behavior by those in power. Listen to his warnings. You will be tempted to use malice, guile, insincerity, envy and slander. You will be tempted to fight evil with evil, curse with curse, lie with bolder lie. Avoid the temptation to act that way, he says. Rather, “conduct yourself honorably . . . so that though they malign you as evil doers, they may see your honorable deeds.”

Strategies people try besides civility
In the centuries since that era, the pages of history are filled with stories of “good” people as well as “bad” people who practiced incivility. Instead of meaningful dialogue, leaders and groups have decided that out shouting or “out slicking” their opponents is the best strategy. In the name of religion, “sinners” have been denied rights. In the American colonies, when some garnered enough power, they banished others. The founders of Harvard and Massachusetts Bay Colony sent Roger Williams off to the “cesspool of New England” -- Rhode Island. They whipped or hanged the Quakers. Plymouth Plantation and founding colleges taught only what was considered to be orthodox. Even the peaceful Quakers denied rights and mistreated persons of other faiths when they had power in Pennsylvania.

Being civil in an uncivil world is difficult. How touching is the story of triumph from M. Angelou’s prize-winning book ‘While the Caged Bird Sings’ which describes how her African-American mother began crooning spirituals rather than respond in kind to the taunts and offensive behaviors of the white youngsters teasing her.

Today America is an athletically-centered, consumer-dominated society that focuses on getting ahead at any cost. That includes sacrificing family at times. It is an uncivil world out there and it seems to cry out for an appropriate type of response. Let’s look at a model.

Continues tomorrow—What is a model for civility? Keys to civility