Civility Tip of the Week: Don’t Be Nice

For many, civility is a nice idea, but they question whether or not it actually works in the real world. The next few civility tips will address some common misperceptions about how civility is practiced.

Today we’ll look at the idea that to be civil, you have to be nice and avoid conflict.

Neither is true.

Conflict in life is inevitable, so preparation is essential. In fact, civil disagreement and even debate, when rooted in a commitment to human dignity, is healthy and helpful. Seen in this way, civility is more of a compass than it is a shield. It’s precisely the tool needed when navigating conflict and when one is faced with the need to speak truth to the storm.

In her Ted Talk, Is Civility a Sham? Oxford Professor and Author of the book, Mere Civility, Teresa Bejan, states that civility is not the same as being nice, nor is it the same as being respectful or polite.

Being civil can’t be the same as being nice because being nice means not telling people what you really think about them or their wrong, wrong views. No, being civil means speaking your mind, but to your opponent’s face, not behind her back. Being merely civil means not pulling our punches, but at the same time, it means maybe not landing all those punches all at once …

Nice is dishonest. It discourages you from telling people what you really think. I grew up in the south, where we had a thing called “southern nice.” I experienced it again, although in a more refined way while serving in Virginia. There it was called being “genteel.”  Both were merely polished methods of dishonesty. One thing was said to the person, something else was said when they left the room. In churches, people would vocalize and vote one way in the building, while meeting to promote an opposing idea in the parking lot. Such a passive-aggressive way of communicating trades the dignity of honest dialogue with people about ideas for a cheapened act of avoiding conversation, stunting progress on ideas, and de-valuing people to save one’s own face.

Let’s assume for a moment that you and I have opposing ideas. When I make an effort to listen to you, represent and understand your ideas accurately (while not agreeing with them), responding with why I disagree, and then make a case for my idea, do you know what I’m doing?

I’m honoring you.

I’m saying, you and your ideas are worth my time and attention. What you present is worthy of my consideration and response. Conflict demonstrates that I care about you, or the issue, or both!

If I want to minimize you, dismiss your ideas, or otherwise try and disengage … a great way is to accuse you of somehow being uncivil. To call someone uncivil, to accuse them of incivility is a way of communicating that they are somehow beyond the pale, that they’re not worth engaging with at all. This is how models of niceness, politeness, and decorum become tools to suppress truth and truth-tellers.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lamented the use of this approach by white clergy during the Civil Rights Movement. In his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King observes that white clergy was withholding support for racial equality by calling King’s efforts “extreme.” King went on to explain that he stood between dehumanizing attitudes of “do-nothingism” and black nationalists “made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible ‘devil.’” King’s position was not extreme, but in leveling this charge, white clergy effectively disengaged from the conflict, effectively shutting down discourse with King and shutting their eyes and ears to a situation for which they were much needed.

Whether the charge is incivility, impoliteness, being uncouth, lacking decorum, or being extreme, the one making the charge has dismissed their opponent, ignored the argument, and avoided making one of their own. This is nothing more than suppression masquerading as civility. It is lazy. It is wrong.

Civility embraces the dignity and discipline necessary to make your argument, state your case, speak your truth, or otherwise stand your ground. This is why civility is most vital when respect is in short supply. Again, Tejan states,

“We need civility precisely when we’re dealing with those people that we find it the most difficult, or maybe even impossible, to respect … because the point of mere civility is to allow us to disagree, to disagree fundamentally, but to do so without denying or destroying the possibility of a common life tomorrow with the people that we think are standing in our way today.” (emphasis mine)

If civility is our way to avoid making an argument, an attempt isolate ourselves to a more agreeable company of the like-minded, if we are not actually speaking to anyone who fundamentally disagrees with us or our ideas, then we’re doing civility wrong.

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