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We live in mean times. While many of us do not daily experience the kind of civic ugliness featured on the evening news, or common place in Op ed sections of national newspapers, if we simply look and listen, we catch the mean spirited discourse all too common. Forget that this is even an election year where both sides can be downright ugly. Uncivil discourse is pervasive and it is the kind of talk that would have gotten us a spanking or some serious time out as children. That makes me wonder….

What prompted this blog was a recent social event where the religious convictions of a public figure solicited a “Support Day” by advocates and a “Kiss Day” by opponents. What is most troubling is that we are at a moment where a person’s deeply held convictions solicit the response of “hate speech.” Let me be more clear. We are in strange times when someone says, “I do not agree with ________” and the response is that “Not agreeing with _______ is HATE speech.” Can you imagine where this may lead us?

One can well imagine neighbors talking across the fence and someone saying, “Well Bill, I think the City Council should restrict the amount of trash you can put on the curb.” “How dare you, you are a HATE filled person to say that.” So what are we to do in such an uncivil time? Our hope resides in the communities of character and our daily encouragement to be civil.

Os Guinness persuasively and passionately (not HATEFUL at all), in his The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends On It, says that a large part of the problem of a collapse of civility in America is that the religious norms historically providing a foundation for civility has now become contested soil.

Judith Martin, in a now dated work (dated because it was first published in 1996 and dated because incivility is winning the day) Miss Manners’ A Citizens Guide to Civility, says that we need to reestablish the mores of etiquette if we are going to stand a chance.

Related to this reestablishment of mores is the delightful, but also dated work (see note above), Say Please, Say Thank You: The Respect We Owe One Another where Donald McCullough examines the power and transformative nature of the daily habit of deference and consideration. Small gestures of humility would go a far distance toward establishing the good society. T.S. Eliot once observed that there is a thin veneer that keeps us all from being savages. One would hope that the habits of the heart, manifested in gracious gestures and kind words may strengthen that eroding veneer.

For those committed to a higher, more transcendent code of conduct, we are reminded of a unique juxtaposition found in the apostle’s letter to Titus, who at the time of receiving this letter was living at Crete. While Paul mentions the fact that “One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons,'” we must also remember that Paul says later, in Titus 3:2 “show perfect courtesy toward all people.” We can know for certain that in any Cretan moment, we are also called to be courteous toward all, even the liars, beasts, and gluttons, and may God save us all.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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1 reply to this post
  1. May I suggest that Socrates and Plato supply two principles which may assist us in being more civil in our discourse?

    The first is Socratic ignorance — the firm conviction of ones own ignorance (and recognition of the urgency with which one must seek to remove it).

    The second principle, which follows from the first, is to approach discourse not in an eristic way, but in the spirit of a joint dialectical quest to reveal to both parties new wisdom — shared anamnesis. In Plato's Dialogues, we see often see a civil, collegial, almost playful attitude among the participants; a character may argue for one position, then its opposite, merely to move the argument along or to reveal new perspectives on the question at hand.

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