(This essay was originally published as “Civilization is Dependent upon Civility,” February 11, 2017, in the Newport Daily News.)
The growing incivility in American civilization has finally hit home for me. For the first time, someone posted a comment with coarse language to my blogsite.
The person was clearly an African American, so I allowed his use of the n-word: He was quoting its use by a white person. However, when he called this white person a “little racist piece of [swear word],” I edited it.
One Saturday afternoon in the early 1960s, I was working at Wildermann’s German “Pork Store” in northern New Jersey when Kenny Wildermann, my childhood friend’s older brother, admonished me, probably in response to my own swearing. He gave me a definition of swearing which I still like in its simplicity and truth. He defined it as “an immature way to express oneself forcefully.” Now I would modify it to “an immature and uncivil way … .”
There is not much disagreement among historians about the definition of “civilization.” A common definition is: a complex culture/society with a large number of people who share common elements. The common elements may include such things as cities, political structure, military structure, social structure, increased material wealth and specialization of labor, writing, religion, and artistic and intellectual activities.
Of course, because a body of people may meet these markers does not mean that the civilization is necessarily “civilized.” Civility, like beauty, is clearly in the eyes of the beholder. For example, in his book, “We Were Not the Savages,” Daniel N. Paul judges the British settlers of the 15th-19th centuries as more savage and uncivil than the native peoples of Canada’s maritime provinces.
Likewise, the question of who were more “civilized” during the crusades of the high Middle Ages will certainly turn on whether the original source is a Christian or Muslim writer.
During the Revolutionary War, the British certainly considered us “colonials” to be an uncivilized bunch, clearly shown in the uncivilized and dishonorable way we fought them.
To me, a clear marker for the civility of a society or civilization is the level of respect and dignity that its adults have for each other, reflected in part by the level of profanity and vulgarity they use toward each other. What words do they use in the public square to communicate with each other? When faced with disagreement, do they avoid slanderous and salacious attacks on one another and remain focused on the actual issue?
The answers to these questions have significance. For when human dignity and respect are not upheld, soon neither will the basic human rights of the Western tradition: freedom of speech and of dissent, and the pursuit of happiness, among others. Taken to its extreme, incivility will eventually lead to the trampling of human beings.
If indeed civility is an important part of the stitching which holds a healthy civilization together, American civilization is clearly at risk. The information revolution has given us the internet with all its wondrous benefits; however, there is no code of ethics that governs it, something I have now witnessed firsthand. Our technical advances seem to have outstripped our ethical codes, a situation that will only intensify as technology continues to progress in leaps and bounds.
Added now to the impact of the no-holds-barred ethical code of the internet on our society is the ethical code of our new president. The first president in history without any public service, President Donald Trump has brought, understandably, a commercial and capitalistic code of ethics to the office of the presidency. This is in contrast to the unwritten code of behavior that comes with this office, the office of our head of state and as such our first citizen of civility. This unwritten code I have witnessed and admired in my adult life in presidents from John Kennedy to Barack Obama. We may argue about its specifics; however, I would guess we would have little argument on this: The president must be a role model of civility and of citizenship.
If he is able to make the transition to this unwritten but nonetheless genuine ethical code, he will ineluctably raise the level of civility in the public square and contribute immeasurably to what the ancient Romans called “civilitas,” meaning “we are all citizens together.” It is this word, after all, from which we get the word “civilization.”
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Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com) has been teaching Western Civilization and World History for twenty years at the high school and college level.