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Nourishing Ideas > Foundational Values > Civility

Civility is the enabling condition of a larger debate about the world we want.
- Mark Kingwell

Anyone who has ever attended a meeting, particularly around a controversial topic, will be familiar with Robert's Rules of Order. Such rules determine how we will discuss the items on the agenda, how we will vote or arrive at consensus, how we will respond to disagreements, and so forth. In short - how we will get along with each other during the meeting.

Civility is the societal equivalent of rules of order for interacting with others - an unwritten code of conduct which many believe has been forgotten or has disappeared from regular behaviour. Mark Kingwell believes civility is the first virtute of citizens, one that sets the terms for the discourse necessary for a healthy society. Kingwell defines civility as "the willingness to participate in a public dialogue of legitimacy - to give and receive arguments about the way a society is grounded." This does not mean papering over tensions or disagreements. Civility respects diversity and dissent. But it requires that we remain open to others' perspectives, and offers guidelines for voicing our opinions in a way that is assertive, yet respectful.

Civility replaces knee-jerk reactions with thoughtful response and mindfulness. It imposes a discipline on our passions for the sake of living in community with each other. It is the "social lubricant" that helps to reconcile the tension between individual and collective and enables the engine of democracy to run more smoothly. Civility stands for a sense of decency, a willingness to sacrifice for others, respect for fellow citizens, and neighbourly love - or what we call philia.

Civility insists that everyone is our civic friend, that everyone is entitled to respect - not just the people we know or are comfortable with. That doesn't mean we have to like everyone in our community. As Michael Ignatieff points out, "Respect doesn't have to mean sympathy, friendship or fellow feeling. We can function with far less. Respect actually means listening to something you'd rather not hear and listening must include the possibility of recognizing that there may be rights on the other side."

This has to do with more than simply courtesy or good manners. There must be an ethic of substance behind the pleasant form of politeness. Civility has to do with rules of social behaviour that acknowledge the humanity of the other person and communicate their worth and dignity at many levels. Referring us back to the Latin root of politeness, Mark Kingwell suggests that civility is "essentially a matter of one citizen polishing another, not only so that rough spots and edges may be removed, but also so that one may begin to reflect another in the common social project of public life."

Civility offers a code of conduct as we travel through home, work and public spaces, and a way to shape these domains along the route. At the same time it opens up the possibility for everyone to be on the journey. By providing guidelines for how to treat each other and for enjoying the journey together, civility is one of the foundation stones of the citizenship we are reimagining. Without it, our society simply could not work.

In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.
- Martin Luther King

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Related Items
Books of interest:
Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, by P.M. Forni
Civility: Manners, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy, by Stephen L. Carter
A Civil Tongue: Justice, Dialogue and the Politics of Pluralism, by Mark Kingwell

Other resources:
Americans for More Civility
A grassroots initiative to promote reason, kindness and generosity in public life and private actions.
The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins
A collection of academic and community outreach activities assessing the significance of civility in contemporary society.
The Civility Project
A project that encourages the understanding and practice of civility and promotes learning about dialogue and non-violent conflict resolution.

On this site:
"Civil society must be built and re-built everyday around the nation's kitchen tables." Read Robert Glossop's article on Families as Architects of a Civil Society (PDF, 30kb).

How we design our neighbourhoods can contribute to (or impede) civility. Read architect Avi Friedman's thoughts on Designing for Civility (PDF, 20kb).
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