Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Whatever happened to civility?
“Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment. It is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos.”
So spoke President George W. Bush in his inaugural address in 2001.
Forty years earlier President John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address of 1961, also noted that “civility is not a sign of weakness.”
More recently, while being interviewed by Krista Tippett, Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist, author, and professor at New York University responded, “When you get people to actually understand each other, and they let down their guard, and they learn something new, and they see humanity in someone that they disliked or hated or demonized before, that’s really thrilling. And that, I think, is one of the most important emotional tools we have to foster civility.”
And yet today civility seems to be in short supply. Jonathan Sacks in his final book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, wrote of the dramatic shift in British politics. “There has been a coarsening of language,” he wrote. “Insult, rage, vicious attacks on opponents, intimidations, and abuse have all become common place.” He called it a poison and “a threat to the very nature of representative democracy.”
Sacks noted a similar phenomenon in American politics as reported in the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit wrote of “ever greater partisanship, zero-sum governing, and tribal gridlock,” as well as a “surprising crudeness and incivility.”
Stephen Carter, Professor of Law at Yale University Law School, author, and best-selling novelist, is also a conservative columnist (writing for many years a column in Christianity Today). His book Civility warns that we no longer have conversations about morality, and this is a threat to democracy. He proposes to “rebuild our public and private lives around the fundamental rule that we must love our neighbors, a tenet of all the world’s great religions.” We must, he writes, “discipline our individual desires and work for the common good.”
In his book, he relates how, as an 11-year-old Black boy, he and his family moved in the 1960s into a white neighborhood of Washington, D.C. He sat on the front steps with his two brothers and two sisters, waiting to see how they would be received. Seeing no one smile or greet them in any way, they feared what they had been told about how whites treat Blacks. He writes, “I knew we were not welcome here. I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here.”
But then a white woman coming home from work saw them, smiled, and welcomed them. She went into her house and minutes later returned to offer them drinks and cream cheese and jelly sandwiches to make them feel welcome. Carter continues, “We were strangers, black strangers, and she went out of her way to make us feel welcome. ... She managed, in the course of a single day, to turn us from strangers into friends.”
He recalls that changed his whole attitude and his life. She “was generous to us, giving of herself with no benefit to herself, and she demonstrated not merely a welcome that nobody else offered, but a faith in us, a trust we were people to whom one could and should be generous.”
Carter further reflects, “We were not waiting for them to love us. We were only waiting for them to greet us. … Our community, after all, is not limited to whom we are closest. Nowadays, whether we speak of our neighborhood, our town, our state, or our nations, our fellow passengers are mostly strangers. But our duty to be both respectful and kind does not disappear simply because they are people we do not know. … We see another rule of civility — one of the simplest and most straightforward — a simple duty of kindness: Civility creates not merely a negative duty not to do harm, but an affirmative duty to do good.”
In the Jewish tradition, this duty is captured in the requirement of chesed — the doing of acts of kindness. It is derived from the understanding that human beings are made in the image of God, thus imposing a duty to treat all persons with dignity and respect. It requires us to act with kindness to our fellow citizens including the ones who are strangers.
The concept of chesed appears in the Torah more than 190 times, which many would argue makes it a primary ethical virtue in Judaism. It is also reflected in what is considered a primary value in Christianity, as reflected in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Kindness and caring for your neighbor, especially one of a different cultural group, is taught in this parable. It is the greatest commandment – to love God and love your neighbor.
Let us heed these basic truths as a foundation for a renewal of civility in our society.