Why Civility Matters

by | Mar 31, 2001 | Frontline



There are many explanations of how our culture descended to this degraded level of public conversation. The glorification of rebellion during the ’60s certainly helped. In recent years the use of obscenities and profanities in movies, books, magazines and television, along with publicity about celebrities who openly flaunt traditional standards of civil behavior have added to the mix too.


In a February Wall Street Journal opinion piece, sociologist Charles Murray brought up the insights of the famous British historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975). Murray said that Toynbee, in his book A Study of History, came to the view that the emergence of a “thug code” of coarse behavior in daily life–and its acceptance by cultural elites–is one characteristic of the disintegration period of a civilization. During such times, Toynbee wrote, the opinion-forming elites lose confidence in the very values that characterized their civilization during its early life and growth.


Just what those values were in early American history are quickly spotted on the Internet. Look up the word “civility,” and one of the first things you see is the full text of something copied down by George Washington when he was just 16, entitled Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.


The little document contains 110 maxims that reinforce over and over the principle that our behavior at all times should be modest, restrained, considerate of others and truthful. “Neither curse nor revile,” and “Let your conversation be without malice or envy” are just two that indeed characterized Washington’s own behavior throughout his life.


It’s not a surprise to learn that Rules of Civility has a Christian origin. They were first penned by French Jesuits in 1595, then adopted by Puritan English in the 1640s.


In our let-it-all-hang-out, casual-is-best era, civility and good manners are sometimes sniffed at, even by Christians, as nitpicky restrictions on our “freedom of expression.” Nothing could be further from the truth.


Civility is at the very core of a peaceful and pleasant life in any society, and unless we apply some restraints to our behavior, chaos quickly results. And when chaos results, dictators come in to impose more laws on us.


The Christian take on this is very simple: At the heart of civility is the conviction that every human being, even if he or she is unaware of it, is a creature made in the image of God and potentially a child of God. Paul says to “let your gentleness be evident to all” (see Phil. 4:5)–the “all” including both the godly and the wicked–and to “do everything without complaining or arguing” (see Phil. 2:14). In the Christian understanding of civility, we are called on to behave well even to those who thoroughly mistreat us.


Civility–being a gentleman if you are a man and a lady if you are a woman–can be an incredibly powerful way both of confronting evil and pointing others toward God.


While researching the life of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s longtime opponent of apartheid, I was struck by how his dignified, courteous manner even in prison won his jailers over to his side. More than once Mandela turned down easy opportunities to escape in order not to bring trouble on guards who treated him well. Mandela’s overwhelming moral presence as an advocate of justice and peaceful change was instrumental in persuading white South Africa’s leadership to turn the country over to black majority rule in 1994.


I often have been amazed at the persuasive power of civility in general and Christian courtesy in particular. Economists used to say, “Good money drives out bad.” It’s time Christians respond to the vulgarity in our own civilization with a similar principle of behavior: Good manners drive out bad.


It’s one of the simplest ways to help head off chaos.

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