I was walking down Pike Street on a beautiful day in July with an Afghan lawyer. We were just discussing the difference between civil and Shariah law when we came upon a couple of young protesters. They were both holding large posters of President Obama with a Hitler mustache. The male of the pair came up to me and insisted, “Wouldn’t you like to get rid of this jerk?”
Perhaps my reaction was exacerbated by having just listened to a group of idealistic scholars from Afghanistan discuss their efforts to build a society out of ideological and economic chaos; regardless, something inside me snapped, and I responded with a declarative sentence even less civil than the protestor’s taunt.
Unable to contain my anger even in my ensuing embarrassment, I tried to explain my reaction to my companion. Nonplussed, the lawyer shrugged. “You have a good democracy,” he said.
Increasingly troubled by the seemingly rampant incivility in our culture, I had gathered some comfort in not having succumbed myself to public, or even digital, displays of vitriol. But now, I had met the enemy, and apparently he was I. At least I was no longer merely a spectator.
Anyone who believes in a Golden Age for anything, be it politeness or any other virtue, probably deserves to be sent back to that mythical time to see how he or she fares. And certainly, we are reminded later in this issue that incivility is hardly novel to our milieu.
Still, canings and purges, even civil wars aside, there is something particularly vicious and distressing about our current behavior. I’m not referring to surly teenagers or the simple lack of manners. Simple boorish behavior is not necessarily incivility. Rather, it is our discourse, whether it be in the House of Representatives or the streets of Seattle.
“Civility,” writes Adam McClellan in one of a fine collection of essays (Civility, University of Notre Dame Press, 2000) that grapple with the problem of civility, “is a disposition that one individual may have towards another or, increasing the scope, a mood that obtains in a group of individuals or a society, when the following three criteria are met by both or all sides in a human relationship: the individual acknowledges the full humanity of both him- or herself and the other, recognizes his or her interdependence with the other, and desires to make common cause with the other.”
We do not seem to be at this place, at least if our politics and the Internet are any indication. The promise of civility seems dim when everyone has an electronic pulpit and truth seems increasingly based on the loudness of one’s assertion. So it lends a special satisfaction to find later in this issue that some of the remaining civil good guys are our own.
Tim Steury, Editor