When the first American President George Washington was a boy of 12, he wrote out in longhand a list of 110 rules about how he hoped to act in his life, especially in public. Washington titled it “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation”, and he carried a copy of it with him throughout his life. Though he likely copied most of those rules from other sources of his day, I’m still struck by how earnest this future commander in chief was, from a very early age; how careful he sought to be in all his relationships with others; and how he sought to carry himself in public.
Rule#1: Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those
that are Present.
that are Present.
Rule#22: Show not yourself glad at the Misfortune of another though he were your enemy.
Rule#40: Strive not with your Superiors in argument, but always Submit your Judgment
to others with Modesty.
to others with Modesty.
Rule#58: Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy
Rule#79: Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof.
It’s a fascinating list to review (I encourage you to Google it), for what’s most striking is how true its wisdom holds for today, 273 years later. The basic ideals about how we human beings relate to one another in daily life and carry ourselves in community: these don’t change or go out of fashion.
Respect others, especially those with whom we disagree and those who hold different ideas than us. Don’t revel in the pain or defeat of anyone, friend or foe. Argue well but do so with humility. When you speak, be very careful about what you say and always avoid jealousy or put downs. Don’t share news that you know to be untrue or are unsure as to its truthfulness.
Shorthand for all these rules: don’t be rude. Or a positive admonition: be kind.
But what happens when the culture throws out all the rules? When a basic communal understanding of what it means to be civil with each other, especially in public, gets tossed out? When rudeness becomes normalized?
In Presidential tweets that regularly bully and beat up and taunt anyone who gets in the way. In governmental circles where meetings between opponents now inevitably devolve into frat house food fights. In the Dunkin Donuts line where folks are in such a hurry that “please” and “thank you” and “no, after you!” seems as rare as a low calorie donut. In technology that brings us closer together but is so often lacking a face to face connection that demands basic civility. Couples can now break up by text!
It’s tempting to dismiss this hope for basic politeness as mere social window dressing. All this etiquette stuff is superfluous, nice for a formal dinner, but not really needed for real life. It’s now become the norm to even laud someone who is publicly rude: “I love her because she just speaks her mind. How refreshing!” I’m not sure if we are now ruder in 2017 than in times past, but we’ve absolutely become much more public about it and we are paying a price for this, a huge social price.
Civility is the glue which holds a society together. A neighborhood. A faith community. A nation. Town meeting. A family. Civility is the sum of the unspoken and spoken rules of behavior, how we get along with one another, especially in public, especially with those we view as a stranger or an opponent, different. When civility is present, it’s like a cold drink of water on a hot summer day, so refreshing, so good. A door opened for one in need. Respectful attention paid when in the company of another. Graciously welcoming a stranger or guest to the table. Civility creates an atmosphere for negotiation and compromise. The one across the table is not the enemy, but the loyal opposition. Civility at its most basic recognizes the humanity of the other person, treats that “other” as we want to be treated.
Civility matters in all times. So here’s a bit of civil advice for all of us as we seek to be together, in public, in life, in these intense days.
Don’t be rude. Be kind.