Column: Put 'civil' back in civilization

Last week's column on certainties concluded with these words: "And when we disagree, let us do so with grace and tolerance. There is enough venality and low-mindedness in the world without our adding to it."

So this column is about civility, hopefully an extension of the "certainties" column.

First off, I admire civil behavior. Which means that if you are polite, considerate and demonstrate basic courtesy in your relationships with others, I will respect you, even when we disagree.

I believe that children are civilizable, but it helps if they are raised by civil parents in a neighborhood that cares about neighbors, in a community that prioritizes good citizenship, and in a nation that rates civility as a high-order priority.

Important questions about civility are worth examining: Are we citizens more or less civil than our forbears? Is the inculcation of civility among our young receiving necessary attention? Is the discourse among our leaders governed by civility toward one another?

Perhaps you feel as I do that we are falling short in those areas of our personal and organizational lives that revolve around the word "civil." The nurturing of an individual sense of civility is not a primary goal in families. Fostering a sense of community is not seen as a major contributor to the common good. Being civil to national leaders and competing political candidates is not the norm.

Puritan colonist John Winthrop eloquently described the need for building a sense of community when he wrote of "a city on a hill in which we delight in each other, seek to make others' condition our own, rejoice together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body. It is this kind of involvement with the needs of others that provides the social cement that binds people together in community."

This is the kind of civil society that was envisioned by our country's early leaders. They believed that a beneficial society depended on the goodness of its citizens as much as on the fairness of its laws.

An aspect of that goodness rests on civility toward those who are different from ourselves. History has been punctuated by the struggle to overcome barriers to unity.

One such barrier is the romanticization of the good old days. Many cling to the illusion that our country was better when there was a common race, a common culture, and a common religion. Whether that kind of cohesion or solidarity ever existed is not really the question. What is important is to acknowledge that the seductive "good old days" are long gone.

America today is multicultural and fast becoming more so. With this inexorable movement comes the awareness that the influence of European descendants is declining. Concern about this reality grows. And with it comes the rise of racism and nativism - the fear of "non-American" immigrants.

These two destructive "isms" are retarding our capability to form a sense of community. Both inhibit our ability to foster pluralism while increasing what clearly is a growing degree of incivility between different cultural groups.

How does this conclusion relate to the goal of becoming a more civil society? Is cultural diversity understood as a strength within our nation, state and community? Does low cultural tolerance relate to the level of civilization of which we are a part? Is civility an issue that deserves more of our attention?

Interesting and relevant questions, I think.

Worth civil thought.

Dr. Ron Barnes is a retired educator and businessman.