• Jim Donaher

A Year Towards Civility

When I was in college, in 1981 and 1982, the University declared 'A Year Towards Civility.'


As best I can recall, it was driven by some high-profile instances of racism or misogyny on campus and a general deterioration of the idyllic environment designed to optimize our academic experience.


I remember actively resisting any of the programs they presented to educate us since I'd already decided it was all nonsense and there was no benefit to my GPA or my future as a Captain of Industry (insert echo effect here).


Of course, 20-year-old me missed the point, almost entirely. The effort wasn't a new set of rules. The point was not simply to 'make people be nice to each other.' It was to reconnect us with the basic human decency and manners with which we grew up. Or we were supposed to.

I now believe that those who conceived 'The Year Towards Civility' underestimated the pushback they would receive and overestimated the willingness of the uncivil to pay attention to their (as I recall, muddled) message. The sense I got was that I wasn't very nice and neither was anyone else.


The actual point was that we all - as a society - had become lazy about saying offensive things. We justified how we talked by referring to movies, TV, stand-up comedy and other outlets that suggested that being offensive was 'Just how people talk.' Dialogue in movies like this was described as 'gritty and real.' This was meant as praise.


In the intervening 40 (ouch) years, I have thought about 'The Year Towards Civility' from time to time. I used to point to it as an example of liberal political correctness or the 'wussification' of America.


Looking at it now, in 21st century America, where civility is as rare as a politician telling the truth, 'The Year Towards Civility' looks prescient, a harbinger of an even less amiable, hospitable level of discourse.


Sadly, that year toward civility was apparently followed by far too many years away from it.


For a long time, uncivil words and actions could evolve into a scandal that could end a career. Back in the '70s, a U.S. congressman from Arkansas named Wilbur Mills, the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee lost his career after a drunken and rowdy affair with an exotic dancer who went by the name 'The Argentine Firecracker.' The public airing of this series of incidents was unusual in those days.


Certainly, people still said awful things, but it rarely became public and when it did, it would be denied unless there was audio or video. Eyewitnesses were, and still are, routinely discredited. This risk was an imperfect check on the tone and quality of public utterances for a long time.


But today, uncivil discourse is pervasive, open and out there for all to see. The President didn't start this, but he has certainly emboldened those who used to hide in the shadows to come out and make their statements in the public spotlight.


And as far as self-justification, no one defeats the current Commander-in-Chief, whose uncivil words and actions could fill an encyclopedia. Those who love him usually cite how he 'tells it like it is' and that he 'doesn't sugarcoat the truth.' In this context, the 'truth' is loosely defined as 'mean thoughts I also had but was too shy to say them out loud.'


There's another reason most people don't say those things out loud. They know it's wrong! Maybe they don't think it's harmful, but certainly not something a nice person with manners and standards would say. And most people consider themselves to be nice people.


So if those terrible comments even enter your mind, you don't let them come out of your mouth. Yet for some reason, a politician whose impulse control deficit prevents this kind of self-editing is attractive to many otherwise-nice people.


During his time on earth, Jesus received more than His share of uncivil comments. His regular critics were the Pharisees, the keepers of Jewish law. One example of this is in Luke 16:13-14:

"No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all of this and were scoffing at Jesus.


In fact, though he was beloved by many, there was a steady hum of dissension around him much of the time. Although he would argue matters of scripture or the nature of God (whose Son He is) and do so with passion, he was always civil. To rebuke someone or to correct them on a matter of fact didn't require him to be mean or condescending.


When the world was being the most uncivil to Jesus, He taught us his greatest lessons in mercy, forgiveness, and humility.


During His crucifixion, Jesus was subjected to the cruelest punishment that humans had devised to that point. He endured a combination of extreme physical, psychological and spiritual torture and the humiliation of dying on a cross in a macabre spectacle.


Yet during that awful time, He still remembered people. When he was being nailed to the cross by the Roman soldiers, he asks His Father to forgive them, because they didn't understand what they were doing or to whom they were doing it.


And on the cross, he assures one of the thieves who was crucified with Him that his faith had saved him and that, 'Today, you will be with me in paradise.' A stranger to Jesus who simply expressed his belief in Him at the last possible moment and Jesus welcomed him.


Jesus wants us to be more like this in our interactions with one another. Kindness is a strength. Mercy is an honor. Forgiveness is divine. Compassion costs us nothing.


At the same time, insults don't make us better or advance our cause no matter what it is. Hating your neighbor for their political beliefs is still hate.


Vilifying a group of people to which you don't belong is not politics. It's bias, whether racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia or anything else. Hating another community doesn't make you safer or happier or richer or more able to get a good job or a quality education.


As we are now in 2020 and the presidential elections are a mere 10 months away, the tendency to become uncivil will increase. Passions will run high and Satan will be fanning the flames of division and grievance to maximum effect. The lies he tells will be all about how someone else is the reason for voter's problems. That the world is imploding because of those people.


If you're reading this, and you are a Christian, your challenge is to live your faith. Your faith has nothing to do with politics or who is President or Senator or dog catcher. Your faith is in Him who died so that you might have eternal life. It is Jesus, who, if we strive to be more like Him, we will be better people.


If you're reading this and you are not a Christian and have no intention of becoming one, that's okay. It is in everyone's best interest to work toward a more civil, open-minded, less-defensive society. One where we can all live safely and freely. Where our strength is measured by our kindness, compassion, and charity.


The United States is unique in that we are the freest of all nations. We are literally free to live as we wish, with relatively few laws to rein in that freedom.


One freedom we have is freedom of speech, which most often is cited by people who say awful things and get called out. Yes, you are free to say most things, even provocative, controversial and incendiary things. Even with insults are somewhat reined in by libel and slander laws, people say mean, thoughtless, cruel things and assume they will get away with them. Most do.


The challenge for all of us this year, as tensions rise and the flames of political rivalry bring us to anger, is NOT to exercise our freedom to demean, attack, discriminate, hate and undermine our neighbor. And our neighbor is anyone. Literally anyone. Anywhere.


Disagree, passionately if you like. But be civil. Don't let Satan lull you into being hateful and mean. Stick close to Jesus, who scares Satan and won't let him hang around.


That way, regardless of who wins in November, we will all be able to get up the next day and face each other. And work together, play together, socialize and reason together.


Because America is not politicians or celebrities. America is all of us. We will decide how our country will be. Although conflict and disagreement are inevitable, disrespect and disdain are not. We are better than our thoughtless words.


God bless you!

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