Disagreeable and Civil – What is Incivility?

September 21, 2009

Incivility is inexcusable.

This simple statement that serves as a guide for all of my thinking, writing and speaking on civility, elicits a large number of emotional and intellectual reactions. Sometimes these reactions are surprisingly negative.

Frequently, I am either asked or demanded to accept that incivility is excusable and justifiable when the situation warrants it. I have been told that civility “is not an absolute”. I have been told that I simply do not understand how complicated the world is, and that incivility is not only acceptable but it is to be expected. I have been told being uncivil was the reason for the successes of our colonies in fighting the British, fighting totalitarians, and combating communism.

And, and to all of these points I must respectfully disagree.

First, saying that incivility is inexcusable is not the same as saying that incivility is intolerable. We tolerate incivilities every single day. We even engage in incivilities ourselves, feeling either guilty or justified when we do so. But, tolerating incivility is different than excusing it. Communities and individuals alike will tolerate incivility to a point, and only when a threshold is reached will they act. Sometimes civilly, sometimes not. If we excuse incivility though, we support and endorse a society where civility has no meaning or place over the long term.

If we look back on the etymological roots of the word civility, we will remember that “people” are at the very core of the term. When civility has completely collapsed, we are placing ourselves against people. We are on the short and potentially bloody road to inhumanity.

Art credit - Scott Gustafson

Art credit - Scott Gustafson

Second, if we serve as apologists for small incivilities we will be more prone to cover our eyes, ears and mouths when those incivilities grow. In a future post, I am going to dedicate time and effort to a post about Hitler’s strategies that eventually led to the establishment of the Third Reich. Suffice it to say for this article, Hitler’s tactics started with sending his followers to disrupt meetings and businesses using rude and incivil behavior – which eventually became more and more aggressive until it resulted in merchants, citizens and political opponents being openly beaten in the streets of Germany.

There is no sensationalism in this claim; if you inspect the footprints of tyrants in history, you will find that all of them started their climb to inhumanity by engaging in small incivilities, first.

Third, and finally, incivility and protest are not to be confused. Civility is the fundamental respect that we accord to each and every person, in order to have a functioning community. If I disagree with you, that is not uncivil. If I demand that you believe what I believe, that is uncivil. Demanding that you subscribe to my world view is not an exercise of that fundamental respect mentioned above. If I act rudely, but I ask for your forgiveness by way of an apology, I am not acting uncivilly. I am acknowledging the value I place on our community by abiding by the fundamental respect required to keep it functioning. If I act rudely, and continue to press this rudeness to the point of aggression, I am being uncivil. In fact, I am declaring that I am not interested in being a part of this community that we’ve agreed to respect each other in.

Protest against an unjust system is not incivility. When King George III determined that colonists were not entitled to representation, that they must provide natural resources to England but purchase manufactured goods only from the British and that they must provide housing and food for British soldiers against their will he was declaring that the bounds of civility did not extend from the British throne to the shores of America. The heaping of incivilities on the colonies, when stacked one on the other, moved the needle to injustice. Injustice can, and frequently has been, met with civil disobedience. In many cases though, injustice is met with violence and war.

Incivility is opposition to civility. Inhumanity is the absence of civility in its entirety. But, protest is the response to injustice, perceived or real. Being uncivil doesn’t lead to protest, it leads to inhumanity. The goal of protesting isn’t to be uncivil, it is to correct a perceived or real injustice. In many ways protest is about supporting civility, not condoning incivility.

The terms and concepts are certainly interrelated, but in the end, it all starts with respecting the intrinsic value in each and every person. It all starts with civility.