The term civil society is ambiguous, sometimes referring simply to civility in society and sometimes referring to organizations outside of government and business, such as NGOs and so-called civil society organizations and civil society actors.
More detail on that latter usage will be explored in an upcoming informal paper entitled What is Civil Society? [UPDATE: That paper is now available: What is Civil Society?], as well as a recent paper entitled What is an NGO (nongovernmental organization)?.
This informal paper focuses on what makes a society civil — civility.
What is civility?
Although the traditional dictionary definition of civility rests simply on politeness and courtesy, civility is generally interpreted very broadly, covering the interactions and relationships of all individuals, groups, and organizations in society, including government and business.
At the simple and most basic level, civility governs direct interactions between two individuals, whether they are related, friends, colleagues, or complete strangers who may or may not have anything in common.
At the larger and more comprehensive level, civility governs our attitudes towards all other members of society, especially those with whom we have no direct interactions or much in the way of common interests, as well as interactions between individuals and groups, organizations, institutions, and all levels of government and business as well.
This paper takes the position that civility includes both the superficial behavior associated with etiquette, politeness, manners, etc. as well as the personality qualities that are driving or motivating behavior. What is excluded is the substance or content of behavior and expression.
Granted, a lot of the more complex interactions involving organizations are best explored in the context of the upcoming paper on civil society, but the basic interactions between individual members of society with each other and with officials and staff of government and business are covered here.
All of these interactions with and within government, business, and society as a whole are explored more broadly and abstractly in the papers Elements of Government and Elements of Society. This paper focuses on the detail of civility.
This paper will also explore the difficulties and challenges of pursuing civility.
Civic responsibility vs. civility
Civility relates not to the substance of our public actions, but their surface appearance and perception, how we feel about interactions, rather than the goals of those interactions.
In contrast, civic responsibility concerns the obligations and duties of citizens, including laws and rules, such as getting an ID or license to drive, jury duty, parking permits and restrictions, recycling requirements, reporting crimes, court appearances, voting, military service, running for office, etc.
Civility is also warranted for all of those civic responsibilities as well.
There may be some degree of overlap between civic responsibilities and civility.
More on civic responsibilities can be found in the Elements of Society paper.
Although this paper takes the position that civility should be viewed in a very broad and fairly deep sense, it still makes sense to acknowledge that there is some minimal level of civility for even those situations where the broader and deeper sense of civility cannot be achieved or be justified or is desired.
It seems to make sense to define that minimum civility as the willingness to respectfully acknowledge the existence of each other, as well as a willingness to let each other pursue our own interests without harassment or interference.
Outright cheerfulness is probably beyond the minimum, but simple acknowledgement, superficial politeness, and respect for personal space, personal affairs, and privacy are surely the minimal.
Minimal civility has no real depth, no real sense of caring or responsibility. It is rather shallow and superficial.
The goal is not to minimize civility, but to assure that some level of civility is possible and common even when there are deep differences.
Common characteristics of civility
A multitude of qualities combine to make a society civil. This list may not be complete, but should probably cover at least 90% of what would constitute a comprehensive and complete list. This list of characteristics of civility is not presented in any particular order:
- Mutual respect
- Respect for the rights of others
- Recognizing and respecting the dignity of others
- Dignity and dignified behavior
- Belief in the inherent good of all people
- Giving others the benefit of the doubt
- Respect for privacy
- Respect for right to be left alone
- Right to pursue personal affairs and interests without harassment
- Chivalry or special courtesy to women
- Holding a door
- Picking up something someone dropped
- Returning something someone lost
- Expressing empathy
- Seeking common ground whenever possible
- Disagreeing without being disagreeable
- Being a good neighbor
- Allowing others their own space
- Respecting personal space
- Philosophy of live and let live
- Welcoming and celebrating diversity
- Tolerance for differences
- Welcoming strangers
- Welcoming visitors
- Welcoming those with whom we disagree or even find offensive
- Sharing power gracefully
- Forgive and forget without grudges
- Willingness and enthusiasm to give people a second chance
- Accepting that occasional slights are to be accepted, gracefully
- Accepting that even the most egregious offenses must be forgiven, without resentment
- Willing to apologize for offenses
- Respect for authority
- Respect for law
- Sense of responsibility and obligation
- Opportunity to participate in governance
- Opportunity to run for public office
- Significant degree of transparency, including or especially government and business practices
- Public officials and businesses actively seek engagement with citizens, seeking input before taking action
- Substantial methods of seeking redress of grievances
- A fair, equitable, and unbiased justice system
- Businesses treat customers as if they were family
- Individuals and organizations alike ask permission and seek input before taking actions that have any kind of impact on individuals, their families, and their communities
- Being considerate
- Peaceful intentions
- Kind words
- Telling the truth
- Willingness to hear people out
- Respectful discourse
- Respectful dissent
- Ethical standards and behavior
- Thoughtful dialogue
- Welcoming alternative points of view
- Giving credit
- Taking an interest in others
- Sense of community
- Positive attitude
- Desire to build and sustain relationships
- Willingness to admit mistakes
- Interest in growth
- Freedom and encouragement to experiment and take risks
- Responsible experimentation and risk-taking
- Respect for the golden rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you
- Mature behavior
- Refraining from blowing up molehills into mountains
- Striving to be a good example to others
- Leading by example
- Maintaining confidences and trust
- Trusting others
- Behaving as a gentleman
- Behaving as a professional
- Respect for professionals
- Respect for officials
- Sympathy for the misfortune of others
- Special respect for the young, the elderly, the ill, and the misfortunate
- Positive or reassuring hand gestures and facial expressions
- Handshakes, pats, hugs, kisses, and other positive forms of casual physical contact
- Playful (but respectful) physical contact
- Appropriate attire
- Personal hygiene
- Respectful eating habits
- Restraint from unnecessary body noises
- Respect for the religious practices of others
- Respect for the disabilities of others
- Joking and teasing, within respectful limits
- Use of playful or complimentary nicknames that work to someone’s credit
- Accepting and respecting that others may not share our beliefs
- Accepting good and not demanding perfection
- Concerned about implications and consequences before speaking or taking action
- Standing in an orderly line without complaint
- Not complaining about every perceived slight
- Social drinking in moderation
- Help when someone has fallen
- Pick things up when they have been dropped
- Warn people of risks and danger
In short, no matter where a citizen turns they will encounter respect and be treated fairly, by fellow citizens, groups, organizations, businesses, and all levels of government.
Characteristics which reduce the civility of society
These characteristics of uncivil behavior are not presented in any particular order:
- Angry words
- Threatening violence
- Unrestrained fury
- Disrespect for the rights of others
- Interference in the interests or affairs of others
- Imposition and attempting to impose one’s will on another
- Immoderate, harsh, coarse, crude, and foul language
- Trash talk
- Calling someone a liar
- Calling someone an idiot
- Crude gestures and expressions
- Giving someone the finger
- Obscene gestures
- Immoderate behavior
- Lying and misleading
- Meanness, mean-spiritedness
- Ignoring people
- Willful ignorance
- Unwillingness to hear people out
- Disregard for ethical standards
- Discouraging alternative points of view
- Non-peaceful protest
- Mob-like behavior
- Death threats
- Polarization and accepting or promoting division
- Divided and seeking difference rather than common ground
- Lack of a sense of community
- Culture wars
- Negative attitude
- Disregard for building or sustaining relationships
- Lack of inclusion
- Disinterest in inclusion
- Unwillingness to admit mistakes
- Irresponsible experimentation and risk-taking
- Lack of dignity and dignified behavior
- Insults and insulting behavior
- Personal attacks
- Disrespect for the golden rule
- Immature behavior
- Immoderate behavior
- Stepping on toes
- Bruising egos
- Running roughshod over others
- Easily angered
- Blowing up molehills into mountains
- Being a bad example
- Do as I say, not as I do
- Being inconsiderate
- Betraying confidence
- Betraying trust
- Behaving badly
- Violating, invading, or encroaching on personal space
- Spying on someone
- Expressing glee at the misfortune of others
- Lack of respect for youth, the elderly, the ill, and the misfortunate
- Negative or disparaging hand gestures and facial expressions
- Hitting, slapping, poking, pushing, shoving, or any other negative forms of physical contact
- Slow clap
- Inappropriate attire
- Poor personal hygiene
- Disrespectful eating habits
- Lack of restraint from unnecessary body noises
- Disrespect for the religious practices of others
- Disrespect for the disabilities of others
- Unwilling to apologize for offenses
- Fake or insincere apologies
- Fake civility — going through the motions to manipulate or gain advantage but without sincerity
- Sexual harassment
- Cold shoulder
- Pick on
- Tease in an unfriendly manner
- Use of fighting words
- Rejecting good and demanding perfection
- Unconcerned about implications and consequences
- Intentionally mispronouncing someone’s name
- Use of disparaging nicknames
- Being a bad or indifferent neighbor
- Indifference or callous disregard for community
- Refusal to respect orderly lines
- Complaining about every perceived slight
- Immoderate consumption of alcohol
Violence in language
In a separate paper, Violence in Language, I explore the many words we use in language that connote violence and run the risk of using language as a bridge from speech to disruptive or even outright violent but certainly uncivil action.
Balancing free speech and civility
We all have the right to free speech, but with that right comes the obligation to respect the rights of others.
Civility is not an absolute obligation, so it is very possible for free speech to have the effect of uncivil treatment of others.
The point is not that free speech should be limited or that civility must take a back seat to speech, but simply that each of us is tasked with finding the right balance between pursuing our own interests and being respectful of others.
End, means, and civility
Even if the end might justify the means, where does that leave civility? All too often, civility is thrown under the bus in the name of expediency or even sometimes desperation.
Does the end really justify a lax attitude towards civility? Most commonly not, but there could be exceptional circumstances.
There is the issue of short-term ends vs. longer-term ends as well. All too often, short-term ends are themselves discarded as progress is eventually made towards longer-term ends, so the validity of a lax attitude towards civility for any immediate end is dubious at best.
In short, the end rarely justifies incivility, although in the extreme there may be special cases where civility is not the most urgent priority.
But a too-willing over-eagerness to discard civility in favor of expediency is not a good sign.
Civility and morality
Civility doesn’t usually rise to the level of a moral imperative. Similarly, morality doesn’t typically require or demand civility per se.
Morality is commonly seen as high-minded principle to be defended at all costs, while civility is typically relegated to the role of a nicety rather than an essential necessity.
That said, people commonly seem to cherish civility as much as if not more than many aspects of morality.
Nicety or necessity?
The evidence of public life seems to suggest that powerful people engaged in political, social, and economic struggles regard civility as more of an optional nicety rather than a mandatory necessity. That said, civility does seem to be the rule rather than the exception for most people in most situations. The difficulty is that those rare exceptions get quickly blown up out of proportion and poison the well far beyond their immediate significance.
A civility crisis?
Media and social media coverage of the exceptions to civility certainly do make it seem that there is an all-out civility crisis, but at the same time civility still seems alive and well in most corners of the world.
In short, the media, including the Internet, tends to act as a magnifying or amplifying device rather than an accurate ruler. So, any suggestion of a crisis should be taken with a large grain of salt.
Whether civility is an ethical matter seems open to debate. Some groups or organizations may strongly recommend but not require it, others may not even bother to recommend it per se, and others may make it a mandatory requirement that is grounds for penalty or even expulsion.
At a personal level, civility seems to be more of a social norm than a high-minded moral or ethical standard. More a matter of common sense.
Still, at heart, good behavior is inherently an ethical matter.
In addition to being an ethical matter, civility is also practical. It is easier for people to get along and easier to work with and between groups, organizations, governments, and businesses when people are behaving in a civil manner.
Advantage of incivility
It certainly does seem that individuals and groups can gain at least a short-term advantage and power by selectively acting in an uncivil manner. Frequently that is merely an illusion, but a very powerful illusion it can be.
The ugly reality is that uncivil behavior can sometimes work, or at least appear to work, at least in the short-term.
Of course, acting uncivilly can mere invite a symmetric response, retaliation. Somehow, the chickens commonly come home to roost.
I would put incivility in the same category as making a pact with the devil — you get some short-term gain, but in the long run it just doesn’t end well.
Still, the lure of short-term advantage is very compelling. Just as drugs can be.
About all we can do is urge people to focus more on the longer term as well as the medium-term costs of incurring the downside risks of incivility.
Optional and voluntary
As valuable and important as civility is, it does seem that it really is still only optional, and strictly voluntary, except in limited contexts as noted above. Be that as it may, maybe that actually makes civility more valuable, showing that those who engage in civility value it rather than feeling merely forced or involuntarily obligated to it.
On the other hand, there probably is a fair amount of insincere civility, where the individual, group, or organization acts civilly for motives that are not strictly altruistic, possibly out of fear, possibly to maximize personal gain, or a desire to manipulate for gain.
Value and virtue
It seems safe to say that civility is seen as a value by most people, groups, and organizations.
And the practice of civility seems to be considered a virtue of individuals, groups, and organizations who practice it.
Granted, some may see civility as a sign of weakness, but that doesn’t in any way take away from its overall value to society as a whole and to individuals alike.
When confronted with the exigencies of daily life, a lot of pressure can be put to bear in favor of being lax with civility. The question then arises where the priority is when civility interferes or slows things down, such as when the pressure is intense to take shortcuts that may lead to toes being stepped on and bruising of egos.
What exactly is the priority of civility?
Is civility only a priority when things are easy and time is not of the essence?
Is civility no longer the priority when things get tense, urgent, and messy?
The only good answer may be that civility is always a balancing act, but with a thumb placed firmly on the scale in favor of civility.
Civility is not always free. Sometimes it takes a non-trivial amount of time, energy, attention, diligence, and perseverance that may be in very short supply.
But the difficulty of marshalling whatever is needed to achieve civility only serves to emphasize the need for careful and attentive balancing.
Generally, the balance should favor civility, even if on rare occasions the balance favors expediency.
The real point is that if incivility begins to occur with a significant frequency, it may very likely mean that the balance has gotten out of whack. The solution is then to step back, take a breath, and more consciously, thoughtfully, and mindfully consider what the best balance really should be. And to give a higher priority to civility.
Is incivility a right?
Consistent with civility being strictly optional and voluntary, it is implied that an individual has an inherent right to be uncivil. Not that incivility is a good thing, but society is all the better when all that is good flows from free will rather than being forced or obligated.
In other words, civility gains much of its value from sincerity, that the superficial behavior reflects a willful and heartfelt respect for others.
Is civility an obligation?
This gets tricky. First off, it is super-great when people act in a civil manner. No question about that. Yeah, and I guess it’s true that most of us would prefer that everybody else should feel at least some semblance of needing to generally behave in a civil manner. But, once you cross the line and insist that civility is an inviolate obligation, you slide down the slippery slope that strips away the humanity and great social value of voluntary choice, free will, that would otherwise make superficial behavior sincere and meaningful.
In short, yes, you SHOULD behave in a civil manner, but that should be because of heartfelt sincerity, not because you feel some externally forced obligation.
Civility may be obligated in some contexts, more in the sense of decorum and professional conduct, such as in a religious service, a courtroom, or an office.
Civility can be more obligated in confined spaces, such as planes, trains, buses, waiting rooms, smaller parks, sidewalks, and entranceways.
What to do when civility fails
What can you do when you feel overwhelmed by incivility? Civility provides the answer: persevere and lead by example. Civility is the best answer to incivility.
Civility is the best answer to incivility
That bears repeating. Endlessly.
Limits of civility
Is it possible to be too civil? Are there situations where civility is unwarranted?
Generally speaking, civility is always warranted and virtually always the best policy.
Of course, as with any general rule, there will always be exceptions.
If an individual indicates either directly or indirectly that they do not wish to interact civilly or even at all, there is no point pursuing civility beyond superficial politeness and so-called minimal civility, respecting their privacy and right to be left alone. The point is not to respond by being uncivil, but to assure that a minimal level of civility is maintained.
Is incivility ever warranted?
Yes, there are quite a few situations where civility simply isn’t effective or even appropriate, such as:
- War. Although even there, civility is the rule for most interactions. Only in the heat of battle does civility lose its value.
- Revolution. Constant struggle. Occasional opportunities for civility, but not the norm.
- Self defense when physically assaulted or threatened with grave bodily harm.
- Law enforcement when a threat is perceived. Short of a perceived threat, civility should be the norm.
- Disasters or emergencies when there simply isn’t time for formalities as potential harm is imminent.
- Formal ceremonies or procedures when stricter rules of behavior override more casual civility.
There is the old saying that all’s fair in love and war. That’s actually an overstatement, but the general sentiment holds even if there remains a strong admonition to engage in civility to the extent that it is humanly possible.
Protest and peaceful assembly
As a general proposition, peaceful assembly is normally expected to occur with the utmost regard to civility and respectful of the rights of others. That’s the ideal, but too commonly civility falls victim to a combination of expediency and passion.
Protest is nominally intended to be peaceful assembly, but that ideal is frequently not the case.
There is an ethical split among protesters — some insist on civility as a matter of principle while others feel it would be unreasonable to constrain their resistance to civil behavior.
Civil disobedience is a longstanding social tradition, but not technically a recognized or protected right. Technically, by definition, it is against the law — it wouldn’t be called civil disobedience if no law were broken.
Civil disobedience tends to be marked by a significant sense of civility as a matter of tradition, although that generality of civility is belied by frequent exceptions.
Professional civility and decorum
Each profession will have its own customized rules for civility or decorum.
For example, a doctor, attorney, or clerk will generally interact with a patient, client, customer, or colleague with a form of decorum that is more formal than if two friends or two strangers were interacting. A form of professional friendliness may also be pursued, even though there is no non-professional friendship outside of the professional relationship.
In any case, it is especially important for a professional to act with a robust level of civility towards patients, clients, customers, colleagues, and management.
Worker civility and decorum
Similar to professionals, the relationships between non-professional workers, managers, and customers are expected to exhibit a robust level of decorum and civility that is more formal than the more casual civility of friends and strangers.
Civility of relatives
Technically, relatives should exhibit civility at all times, but the reality is commonly far from such an ideal. Why that is so is beyond the scope of this informal paper.
That said, a significant degree of civility is very common between relatives and certainly to be both recommended and expected, even if the exceptions can appear rather overwhelming at times.
Civility is the best policy
As a general proposition, it feels safe to conclude that civility is generally the best policy.
Individuals, groups, organizations, government, and business should always strive to provide the time, space, and energy for civility.
That said, there are always exceptions to every rule. Part of civility is accepting that you won’t always be treated as civilly as you would like and not always have the time, space, and energy to act as civilly as you would like.