The Loss of Civility in Public Life

February 23, 2012

Australian readers of this blog will be well aware that the last 12 hours have seen the unfolding of a leadership challenge to the existing Prime Minister Juliard Gillard by the man she deposed in 2010 Kevin Rudd. Some of the early exchanges from some of the sitting members who are Gillard supporters have been appalling. There has been little civility evident. As to whether it is any more honest? We will wait and see. Below is a post that I wrote in April last year on the need for greater civility and why it matters.  

Crean outburst on Rudd sets new low benchmark
Does civility matter? I think it does, but sadly, the signs are evident in Australia that it isn't valued as highly as it once was.  By civility I am not talking just about good manners (though they are important), but rather about the behaviour between members of society that leads to a social code and foundational principles for how a civilized society functions. This historically has been a major focus of political philosophers and has included concern with principles of justice, liberty, rights, freedoms, the law and the duties of citizens to government. The Carbon Tax protests in Canberra during 2011 set new low standards for public political debate. It made me wonder whether we should we be concerned when we have public protests of the type we witnessed? And is public civility important?

The consideration of civic virtues is not new, two of the world's oldest republics, Athens and Rome, gave much time and energy in seeking to define civic virtues. Socrates and Plato were central in the debate concerning Athenian polis.  Civic virtue was also a matter of interest in the Renaissance, during the Enlightenment and as part of republican revolutions during the 18th century.  This of course has been played out with different priorities, purposes and social agendas. With the rise of Humanism and institutionalised education in the 18th and 19th centuries, some believed that society could be save from itself by the development of virtuous children through education. Biblical Christianity of course would suggest that man's sin and rebellion against God makes this hope of the goodness of humanity rather tenuous. We live together in our imperfection and fallenness.

Photo credit: Alan Porritt (AAP)

When people talk of civility today, they might well mean the cultivation of character traits and virtues that are consistent with their own cultural and social practices. These at times simply reflect one's social class rather than well thought out ideas of civil society.  The distinction between practices that some see as demonstrating civility and others that are uncivilised, can be based on the most tenuous of justifications.

Roman Forum,  Centre of Public Life
Attempting to move beyond subjective debates about manners requires us to return to the root of the word, that is the opposite of civil. The word 'uncivil' comes from the Latin word incivilis, meaning "not of a citizen." To be civil, is to play one's part as a citizen in building a civil society. What any society needs to guard against is behaviour that runs counter to the well being of a society; that is, behaviour that strikes at the very structure and foundation of one's civil society. In the recent decades, many western democracies have seen the topic of civic virtue gaining attention. This has been particularly the case in relation to the good practices of government and the participation of citizens in relation to government.

In countries like Australia, France, Canada, Britain and the USA, political parties seem to be at war with each other rather than setting debating and agreeing on policies that will help to shape nations for the common good.  Political parties spend millions of dollars to tear policies and each other apart. And leaders are constantly being undermined from within their own parties. Issues are rarely debated with transparency and civility, lies are told, tricks played and voters deceived. What such behaviour can unwittingly encourage is extreme responses by minority groups in any society that is fuelled by the behaviour of our leaders as they provide simplistic messages designed to raise fear and incite anger, rather than opening up reasoned civil discussion.

In the 'The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends On It', well-known Christian Os Guinness argues that civility needs to be rebuilt in western societies like the USA if they are to survive:
"Civility must truly be restored. It is not to be confused with niceness and mere etiquette or dismissed as squeamishness about differences. It is a tough, robust, substantive concept… and a manner of conduct that will be decisive for the future of the American republic" (p. 3).
Os Guinness's book proposes that the restoration of civility in America could well have an influence around the world. He points to the threat of minority groups like the Religious Right and the secular Left, arguing that there is a need to avoid privileging one interest group over another, including religious groups. But equally, in the case of religion, we must avoid gagging public debate and making all public professions of faith illegal. He argues that the United States is uniquely placed to demonstrate how this can be done for the benefit of the world. In doing so, any nation should avoid two false responses to the challenges of a secular society where cultural and class wars eat away at civil society.  First, we need to avoid any notion of a “sacred public square", where one religion has a position of privilege that denies religious expression by others. Second, we need to avoid what he calls the “naked public square", where public life leaves no place for religion.

Guinness presents an alternative to both these problematic public squares, what he calls a “civil public square”. This is one where everyone is free to be part of and engage in public life with or without a faith, and in accordance with reason and conscience.  He sees the Constitution as a starting point in the USA, supported by an agreed covenant or civic vision for the common good.

Such a civil society, that is able to demonstrate a "civil public square", may well avoid the type of false tolerance that we have witnessed in Australia in recent times as diverse political parties have attempted to maintain a government where no party has a clear majority. A mature civil society will need to enable minority groups to have a voice, but they must not be allowed to seek to establish their position by yelling the loudest or the longest. Guinness reminds us that in a democracy all have a right to believe anything, but this does not mean, "anything anyone believes is right". We need to expect differences of opinion in a civil society and also to work out ways to discuss them and reach consensus for the common good. Christians have a part to play in such public discourse, participating openly as people of faith with godliness, humility and respect for the rights of others to participate as well.

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