What do we mean by 'Civility'?

Professor Paula Lustbader speaks to the definition of civility and its importance during the Alfie Scholars at Seattle University launch event on March 9, 2016.


What do we mean by civility?

We certainly know we need it more than ever, right? Anybody been watching the debates recently? Anybody looking at what's going on in our country and notice the crassness, the crudeness, and the lack of sensitivity? Rather than coming together in our shared humanity, some people want to close the borders and build the walls. I'm not naming names. But this is a moment that kind of cries out for civility.

What do we mean by civility? Civility is living by the Golden Rule, which has its version in all the major religions and most of you were raised with a version of the Golden Rule as a guiding life principle. So civility at its most basic is to treat others as you wish to by treated. But what does that mean?  Think about somebody who is a role model of civility. What is one word that would describe them?

Fair.

Fair.

Respectful.

Respectful.

Kind.

Kind.

Generous.

Generous.

Reflective.

Reflective.

Gracious.

Gracious.

Accountable.

Accountable.

Mensch.

Mensch. A good mensch is a person of honor. You know, we have to leave it with mensch, right? A mensch is a civil person. That's right. What does civility mean? There's a variety of definitions out there, and I had a whole bunch of them written out, and then I thought, I'm not going to give a lecture today.

The main thing is at core, all of the definitions include some piece of the Golden Rule, some element of respect, and it's about a way of approaching and seeing others, and an openness to be with others. We're not saying you have to be agreeable and roll over and be docile and let people steam roll you. We're not saying civility means one can't disagree with another person. It's really the way in which you go about having the conversation and the way in which you approach it. We call it the Tai Chi of civility because it's about an attitude as much as behavior and skill set. It's all of that. It's not just one set of rules.

Civility calls upon us to do more than tolerate each other and our differences. It requires us to even do more than what Aretha asks for: Respect. It's important to be respectful, but civility also calls upon us to be curious, because when we're really curious about others and our differences, then we will value what all of that brings, and in so doing, we can have a more, this is where our missions coalesce, just and humane world. We will treat each other differently.

We need to connect in our shared humanity through many acts of civility little and big. I was reading on a blog post just the other day on the Mighty website. Anybody ever look at the Mighty website? It's interesting. I won't go into that, but this woman, Debra Green, was writing about what occurred to her in thanking strangers that came to her aid ten months ago. She describes this moment where she had just started shopping in the Whole Foods and her shopping cart was partially full. She was standing near the entrance and she got a phone call from her brother. The brother says, “I hate to tell you, but our father just died. He killed himself.” She falls to her knees, lets out an agonizing scream, and these strangers came to her aid. The strangers are picking up her phone, trying to find the contact for her husband. One says can I pray for you and your father, and she says sure, and then this woman starts praying to Jesus, and she's like, hey, we're Jewish, you know, but it was wonderful. It was a wonderful moment.

Another one is planning trying to figure out how to get this woman back home in one piece, so they're planning, “I can drive her back in her car, you follow me in your car, and then we can come back.” Then Debra, who's in a puddle on the floor, says, “you know, I have a friend who works here. Maybe she's here.” Sure enough they find the friend, and the friend comes to her aid and takes her back into the employee section and calls the husband to come get her.

And the strangers bought her a gift card for Whole Foods to pay for her groceries so that she would know that they were still holding her. Debra ends her post by saying, "Your kindness, your compassion, your willingness to help a stranger in need have stayed with me until this day, and no matter how many times my mind takes me back to that horrible life altering moment, it's not all darkness because you reached out to help. You offered a ray of light in the bleakest moment I've ever endured. You may not even remember it. You may not remember me, but I will never, ever forget you, and though you may never know it, I give thanks for your presence and humanity each and every day."

The power of civility is that through these small acts of kindness, we can transform lives. You'll never know the light you can bring to somebody else's darkness, and that's just so eloquent. I just think that's really what we're talking about with civility.

When we're talking about civility, we're asking people to be conscious and aware of their own issues and aware of the people around them. We're asking them to be creative and open-minded, and to realize there are many different ways to perceive what is before us. My way isn't the only way. I have a colleague and dear friend who was explaining she was in a meeting that was getting very contentious, and she finally said, “you know, I just would like to share my truth,” and I thought, what a great way to give room for other truths, but to also be heard. I think that's how we get to be heard, and we get to be listened to so our ideas can flourish, and we can actually get to a better result when we bring everybody's voices to the table.

Lastly, civility asks us to be community-oriented. The Dalai Lama says that the greatest secret to happiness is being in service to others? Think about it. Think about that good feeling you have when you know you've helped somebody else. Archbishop Desmond Tutu talks about Ubuntu, which is this concept that human beings are inextricably connected to the one another, and we are connected in such a deep way that our humanity depends upon us honoring the other. He says, “I need you to be the best you can be because that's the only way I can be the best I can be.” So together collectively, we're all rising with the tide.

I'll end with this other story. I don't know how many of you watched or saw on the news this summer. In July, there was a protest going on in South Carolina, and it was right after they moved the Confederate flag from state grounds in South Carolina. On one side of the courthouse grounds, there was a Black Lives Matter protest going on, and on the other side was the neo Nazis protesting against taking the flag down. In the middle of this scene was Leroy Smith, who is a black state trooper in his uniform, and he was on duty at the statehouse grounds. He saw an elderly white man with a swastika t-shirt on who was starting to collapse, had heat exhaustion. He took that man, took him by the arm, and he walked him up five flights of stairs to get him to a place where it was cool and he could sit inside the house.

There was a photograph of Leroy helping and this man.  This photograph was taken on an iPhone and posted on social media, and it went completely viral. This powerful, powerful image of not just helping a stranger that's a neutral encounter, but actually seeing a someone, Leroy, come to the aid of somebody who represents hatred towards him and his race.  There may be a lot more beneath that that would have had to work through, but Leroy didn't stop to question it. Leroy just stepped up and helped this man because in that moment all he saw a was a fellow human suffering. He didn't see the swastika or give it meaning. When interviewed about why he thought this photograph went viral and had struck such a chord in our culture, Leroy Smith said, “Love. I think that's the greatest thing in the world. It was love.”

I would say it was love, but it was love that was embodied in the act of true civility. Thank you.