It is often said, somewhat uncharitably, that civility is the political correctness of the right. Just as the culture police of the left seek to demonize and vilify any sort of speech that makes fun of cultural or ethnic minorities or various designated “subaltern groups,” so too a politics of civility is generally designed to ensure that respect is given to elites, to majorities, to dominant populations. Often disrespect is used as a political weapon, for it is easy to be hateful and hurtful to those who we do not respect, while respect will tend to lead us to give the benefit of the doubt, to be forgiving and merciful, and to avoid taking unnecessary offense at that which was not meant to be harmful. We will be kind to those whom we respect and love, and we will be mean and hurtful to those whom we do not respect and love. In many ways, our feelings and attitudes drive our behaviors.
Ideally, we should respect and love everyone. This is not an easy standard to meet, and certainly we all fall short of that standard, but that is the goal we should strive to achieve with all the help and encouragement we can muster into achieving that goal. It is love and respect that bind people together in loving families, well working institutions, unified societies. An absence of love and respect makes itself obvious in broken families, corrupt institutions, and deeply divided societies, of which we all have a great deal of experience (much of it very painful and unpleasant). It is often fruitless to assess blame, because blame can usually be found on all sides, with people who abuse power and authority and others who treat their leaders with contempt. We each are accountable for our own sins.
It is common to hear the complaint that there is no such thing as civil discourse anymore, and at times I have made that complaint (though in all fairness my adversaries and debate partners would not generally consider me to be a civil person). But the fault for this lamentable state of affairs lies within us. We cannot discuss matters in a civil manner because we do not show love and respect to others, and it is necessary to feel loved and respected and honored before one can tackle difficult problems (like the problems of trust that are so vexing and omnipresent in my own personal and professional life). Unfortunately, it is not enough to feel love or respect for others, especially if one lacks the capacity to express that feeling in a way that is recognized by someone else. For there to be civil discourse all must feel respected and loved, and that is a vastly more complicated and difficult affair. And this love and respect must be felt before one can engage in difficult and potentially contentious discussion.
And let’s be honest, all of us in this world are scarred and wounded people. We all feel attacked and disrespected, and to some amount persecuted, no matter who we are or what we believe. This world is harsh and cruel to everyone. No matter how wealthy or blessed we are, there is going to be someone in this world who delights in attacking our weaknesses and insecurities, and we all have them. Sooner or later we all end up broken and injured in some fashion, even if some people are broken more completely and more deeply and more obviously. And because of that we all have sensitivities that make civility important to avoid causing unnecessary offense–there are enough occasions where offense is necessary that we should not be careless in offending others through a lack of respect or consideration, even if it is often a very difficult task to understand just what translates to respect to someone else.
Before we complain about the lack of civility in our society, we have to be willing to do something about it. We really have no credibility to complain about a lack of politeness or respect if we are not willing to respect others. And even if we think we respect others, we must be prepared to recognize that many people may not see our actions and words as respectful, if they are open enough to let us know what they really think and feel. There are many barriers to civil discourse, including the necessary trust and safety that has to be felt before people are going to be open about themselves and their deepest concerns, which are what tend to drive their public behavior in ways that are unpredictable (and that may seem unreasonable) to others.
But such heroic effort as it takes to show respect to others in our families, institutions, and societies is worth it if in fact we desire to create more healthy, more loving, and more unified relationships. The unity is the result of a shared commitment to others (and the goals of the institution), a shared love and respect, and mutual trust and regard. All of these are difficult and sometimes painful to achieve, and I wish I were a far better person at modeling such behavior in my own life, that I might be able to give more practical tips on how it may be done. As it is, I do my best to be attentive to others and to listen and pay attention and act promptly when they are direct with me about something that bothers them or makes them feel uncomfortable, and hopefully that is good enough. We all have a long way to go, but the effort is worthwhile if we have the will to see it through to the end. And the same problems are true in the small and large scale, so by working on building a civil and respectful culture in our closest relationships (with family, for example), or in those places where we spend the most time, we gain the skills that could make our larger societal issues much better. If we have the will, that is.