We’re currently seeing numerous calls for civility in dealing with people on the opposite side of the political divide. These calls come from both Democrats and Republicans, though rarely in response to the same things. What passes for civility among friends is considered a grave insult when delivered by your enemy.
Civility is an admirable goal. An uncivil society, in which citizens turn against one another instead of working together, will likely fall into chaos. But let’s stop equating civility with kindness. Let’s stop pretending like good manners are synonymous with good intentions. I was raised in the Hospitality State. Mississippi prides itself on good manners and friendliness. Saying “please” and “thank you” and “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir” are part of the culture. The message? You don’t have to like everyone, but you should be polite to them.
This sounds like a good idea, but it can be dangerous. It’s deceptive to smile and nod at someone, while you plot ways to harm them. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was also raised in the south and it shows. He is the master of death-blow charm. He delivers dangerous policy announcements with an impish grin and a lilting drawl. The words are terrible, but the delivery sure is civil.
This sneaky civility is more harmful than a raised voice or even a raised fist. It lulls us into believing that we are dealing with good and reasonable people. That’s a bad assumption. Sometimes soft-spoken, well-mannered people are the nastiest people of all. You see this when people claim to “hate the sin, but love the sinner” as a justification to condemn the LGBTQ community. The problem with that, of course, is that you can’t hate the very essence of what makes a person human and still profess to love them. Love doesn’t work that way. You see it whenever there is an outpouring of “thoughts and prayers” after mass shootings. Thoughts and prayers are nice. They are civil. Without action, they are also dangerous and meaningless.
I recognize that my own words and actions often fall short of perfect civility and I do wish for more civil discourse in the world. I wish the people at the very top would set the tone for civility, not only with better language but with greater compassion and respect. But if someone wishes me harm, I’d rather have that person speak in anger than try to mask their bad intentions with pretty words. There is no difference between someone who kills you with kindness and someone who kills you with rage. It’s like the difference between being raped by a stranger or being raped by the guy who brings you flowers. Either way, you end up violated and flowers don’t make anyone less monstrous.
Let’s stop pretending that everyone who speaks with a soft voice is good and everyone who shouts is bad. Let’s recognize that some of the worst people have the nicest manners. Civility does not equate to morality. Let’s work toward actual respect and compassion for one another. Civility will follow.
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