I’ll admit that I struggle with the concept of “civility.” I keep it as a very firm rule for myself. I try to be clear but also charitable in what I say. I also try to avoid “ad hominem attacks” which are attacks on the person rather than the argument. I also try to avoid assigning motive when the motive is not clear to me.
But I also admit that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures there is a greater tolerance for anger. I remember dating an Italian girl for a brief time back in college. I remember being at her house and how she and her mother could really go at it with a heated debate (usually in Italian – Mama Mia!). But no sooner had they very intensely argued over some particular, say of preparing the meal, than they were just fine, as if nothing had happened. Angry discourse was more “normal” for them. Even in this country there are regional differences about civility. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive debate are common. But in the upper midwest and parts of the deep south conversation is more gentle and reserved. At the time of Jesus angry discourse was apparently quite “normal” for Jesus himself engages in a lot of it, even calling them names like, “Hypocrites.” “Brood of Vipers,” “Liars,” “Wicked” etc. Yet, the same scriptures that record these facts about Jesus teach that he never sinned. Hence, at that time such terms were not considered sinful to utter and must not have been since I am a firm believer that Jesus never sinned. Jesus even engaged in prophetic actions like overturning the tables in the temple courts. No one said he’d done wrong, they just wondered where he got the authority to do this (cf Mark 11:28). In that culture prophets did things like this. No one liked it, but just like our culture tolerates some degree of civil disobedience, even reveres it, Jesus’ culture expected things like this from prophets. Now be careful here. I am not saying it is OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then, we live now and in our culture such dialogue is almost never acceptable. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity.
So there seems to be a lot of variability in the concept of civility and civil discourse. In general our culture seems to prefer a gentler style of discourse, with the regional variability I have already mentioned taken into consideration. But we have recently been through a very tough Healthcare debate (battle?) in which the discourse went beyond what many think was civil. Over at the USCCB blog is a posting which raises concerns about it. I would like to excerpt it here and add some of my own comments in RED. And as always I’d like to know what you think. (You can read the complete and uninterrupted USCCB Blog post here: USCCB Media Blog) Meanwhile here are my excerpts and comments.
The heat in the aftermath of passage of health care reform reveals the depth of feeling among those for and against the landmark bill that affects all Americans. Such heat, however, cannot justify the verbal and physical violence that has ensued.
If we needed health care because of the crisis affecting the sick, especially the weakest among us, we need even more a move toward civility, if not for our own betterment then at least for the betterment of our children.
Politics has become a kind of blood sport. News junkies over the weekend heard reports of crowds shouting racist remarks and individuals spitting at African American lawmakers, including John Lewis, who suffered violence years ago when he marched for Civil Rights. Surely he – and all of us – has a right to expect that that chapter of despicable, racist violence long over. This event is not verified or recorded in any of the video from that day. At best it is a story that is going around that we can only hope is untrue. It is reported that Congressman John Lewis did mention hearing some slurs but did not clearly indicate if they were racial slurs or what. Further it is not certain how many, if any, engaged in this behavior. Was it one, many, etc. It is not certain. If it did happen it is reprehensible. But likely it involved just one or a few. I do think we have made a lot of progress in this area and that such behavior is not tolerable in our society. The vast majority of those who were against the bill would surely and adamantly agree that any such behavior in this regard was unacceptable. John Lewis is surely a hero of the Civil Rights Movement. What ever variability there may be in how people size up civility, racial slurs and spitting are beyond any one’s tolerance.
We’ve seen reports of homes and offices of lawmakers vandalized and heard of death threats. Anonymous messages are being left on voicemails – I even got one from a nun, for goodness sake. If that isn’t proof that we’ve gone astray I don’t know what is. Yes, and for the record this happened on both sides of the debate. Congressman Stupak, interviewed on NBC news indicated receiving threats from pro-choice people when he was holding out due to abortion funding. After the vote the threats switched to the pro-life side! Alas, here too we can only hope that those who make such threats are in the vast minority. It is true however that threats of this nature are a regular part of the lives of public figures, not just politicians, but also media personalities, movie and sports figures, and others.
The wonderfully unedited Web may share some blame as it gives free reign to those who say whatever suits their strategic purpose, truthful or not. Their presentations – usually anonymous – underscore a significant failing of the Web, lack of editors and accountability. Ah and here is where it comes home my friends. What is said here has a lot of truth. The anonymous quality of many who participate can lead to much higher levels of unkindness and inaccuracy. If no one know who I am I can say just about anything. In general our discourse at this blog has been civil but we have had our moments. The impersonal quality of a lot of the communication can lead to a kind of forgetfulness that a real person, or person is on the ther side of the screen. Further, writing does not always allow the nuance of the spoken word and personal interaction where tone of voice and facial expression can often supply clarifying data that one is speaking ironically, or facetiously, or just in good fun. True we do have our “emoticons” like 🙂 and 😉 and LOL! that help but we have to be very careful when we write to remember that much data is lost when the word is only written. Accuracy is also a bit of a problem when the writer is anonymous for they are less concerned with their reputation and will more likely say inaccurate things that they would otherwise have to verify. Hence our reserve to speak about things we are not sure of is diminished.
The intolerance and incivility did not begin with legislation passed Sunday night. It is not unrelated to the divisions that exist in our country and, sadly, even in our church. Yes, how we Catholics speak to each other needs further reflection. It has been my experience that most Catholics are far more passionate about their politics that their faith. This is sad but it also affects the way we speak to one another. We often use political terminology such as right/left; conservative/liberal which may not well apply to the Church settings. I fielded a lot of remarks in the past week accusing the Bishops of being lap dogs for the GOP etc. But I guarantee you when it comes to immigration reform or capital punishment, that others accuse them of being “lap dogs” for the Democrats. What if they were neither? What if they were Catholic and trying to articualte Catholic principles in a polarized world? What seems to happen is that we take a lot of our politics into the Church with us. To be sure there are some very serious divisions in the Church that need often frank discussion and cannot reduce to a “Can’t we all just get along” mentality. Finding the balance is not always easy.
It starts with how we view others – as enemies rather than as fellow travelers on the journey of life. It includes whether or not we’re willing to give another the benefit of the doubt, accepting that their intentions are good, even if their goals differ from ours. It involves accepting the fact that each of us is a child of God and precious to Him and our brother or sister. – Well said.
Last Tuesday, March 23, Cardinal Francis George, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, noted the bishops’ disappointment that the health reform legislation did not include all they sought….Even in disappointment, the bishops were civil and generous. Their position is worth emulating.
[There is] a maxim attributed to St. Augustine, “In essentials, unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity.” In all things charity surely is the message we all need today. It’s not a bad start to Holy Week.
So, there it is. How exactly to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard to define things is “I know when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility But it is clearly getting edged out, to be sure. In an era when shared values and reverence for a shared and immutable truth have been largely jettisoned what we end up with is power struggle. Such a scenario is usually ugly.
In the Black Community where I minister there is an expression, “Now don’t go and make me lose my religion!” What it usually means is that we can get so wrapped up in our anger and frustration that we cast off charity, which is the highest call of our faith. We need to check ourselves occasionally. In a world increasingly hostile, where do we stand? It may be true that, as we discussed above, there are some cultural differences when it comes to what is acceptable in discourse. But in the end charity and civility cannot be wholly cast aside. Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean. And whatever you do make sure you don’t lose your religion! 🙂
Here is a video I have posted before showing the “angry” style of Jesus culture. He is no wilting flower here nor are his listeners shy about expressing their opinion. Our culture is not generally very accepting of such discourse.