The Limits of Civility

As a native Midwesterner, I believe in the importance of civility. It’s one reason our current federal government poopshow drives me so crazy. I think people who allow themselves to be pulled into incivility are both coming from and heading toward a dark place. It’s a symptom of deeper problems – the slippery slope of dehumanization that occurs when we assign people to broad categories defined by one-dimensional traits and the dangerous belief that a person who disagrees with you is your enemy. It’s born of the habit of thinking the very worst of people and grows by finding ways to reinforce those twisted beliefs, discarding all evidence to the contrary.

It’s not just them, of course. In fact it’s not them at all. It’s us – the conversations we engage in, the ways we interact online, how we choose to spend our time.

I live in a small city just outside of Cincinnati that sprang up as a river and train stop town, became a resort area city dwellers to escape hot polluted summers, remained a sleepy rural outpost for a long time, and recently transformed into an in-demand place to raise a family. A lot of the historic charm is still here and the former rail lines have been converted into a fairly well-known bike trail. Even here, yes, in a town called Loveland, unseemly behavior at city hall meetings have hit the news. A finance committee member is embarrassed to live in our city and I think lots of us agree with him.

I cringe and wonder why these people can’t behave themselves. Not only is it uncomfortable, it’s counterproductive. Invariably, the focus becomes the bad behavior not what’s going on behind the curtain. Style over substance. Reality TV star over policy wonk. And, yes, I do realize that this might be the strategy. That’s another topic entirely.

Lately I’ve wondered if my preference for politeness is really all it’s cracked up to be or if I’m looking for another empty suit. Am I craving a thick enough veneer to keep me comfortable or something more meaningful?

If my Midwestern sensibilities are too quaint for you, I’ll up the gravitas ante with one of my favorite lines from Audre Lorde.


We won’t change the system by using the same bullying tactics that got us here in the first place. True, meaningful change comes not just from the what we produce, but in the how we got there. It’s no good to live in a town that looks like Mayberry if everything changes when the doors close and everyone has had a couple of cocktails.

I do believe that the golden rule matters. It sets the tone and signals a healthy environment. But it can only take you so far. It only really matters if it’s backed up by a commitment to respect – a basic belief in the dignity of everyone. Because if you don’t believe that we are all worthy, politeness is just as fake as Mayberry’s Hollywood set.

You can’t hide character either.

The good news is that you can build it. The first step is the hardest and loneliest work of all – an honest assessment of what’s behind your veneer.

3 thoughts on “The Limits of Civility”

  1. I want to agree with you but right now I am feeling less than civil. I WAS working on trying to understand the “other side”, but I had to give up. As part of the group promoting the “strategy” you refer to–I read Twitter too much ever day and am more convinced than ever it is a toilet. But I do it, I get in there, I try to be civil when I speak on behalf of my local group. When I tweet for myself, not so much. I just have a hard time feeling civil–much less being civil–to anyone who wants to shove me into a high risk pool I cannot afford, who thinks I do not deserve insurance, and the thereby access to health care. At this moment, I’m of the opinion that people who think I do not deserve to live, do NOT deserve my civility.

Comments are closed.