Civility Tip of the Week: Stick to your convictions

Last week, I wrote that a common misperception about civility is that requires and is equated with being nice. It’s not.

This week, we’ll look at another misperception; that being civil requires us to soften our convictions.

Not so.

In fact, true civility is connected to firm convictions.

 In April of 1862, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an essay for The Atlantic magazine. In it, he praised President Abraham Lincoln for his resolve in seeking to emancipate slaves; an action perceived by many in the south as a threat to their established civilization. Emerson observed that America was attempting

to hold together two states of civilization: a higher state, where labor and the tenure of land and the right of suffrage are democratic; and a lower state, in which the old military tenure of prisoners or slaves, and of power and land in a few hands, makes an oligarchy: we have attempted to hold these two states of society under one law. But the rude and early state of society does not work well with the later, nay, works badly, and has poisoned politics, public morals, and social intercourse in the Republic, now for many years.[1]

Emerson continued, asking, “should not the best civilization be extended over the whole country, since the disorder of the less civilized portion menaces the existence of the country? There can be no high civility without a deep morality.”[2] Emerson’s polished yet passionate plea is grounded in his belief that true civility is connected to firm convictions. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist J. Anthony Lukas stated his belief that the moral decline in his city is realized because “we have let our standards of civility and truth waste dangerously away.”[3] Emerson and Lukas each in their own way convey an approach to civility that is essentially connected to conviction. What they call for is the reversal of what W.B. Yeats describes in his poem, “Second Coming,”: “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”[4]

Therefore, such a reversal is needed, for the concern of many is that with civility comes passionless indifference or even a posture of compromise. Lutheran pastor and scholar Martin Marty framed the concern as follows; “people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions, and people with strong convictions often lack civility.”[5] If we desire to be more civil, however, it need not be at the expense of our convictions. Richard Mouw calls this “convicted civility.”[6]

Expressing civility does not mean we’re prohibited from prophetic criticism of the thinking, beliefs, behaviors, and other systemic realities of the times. While it may be true that civility calls for us to affirm the right of another to express their beliefs, civility does not demand that we accept, affirm, or approve of those beliefs and their resulting actions. Saying one has the right to express their convictions is one thing; saying they are right in how they express them is something different. Civil conviction calls us to the former, not the latter.

Contrary to the way civility can be misunderstood as soft or passive, or that to be civil, one has to jettison their passion, civility’s power is inextricably linked to the strength of our convictions. As the author and social critic, Os Guinness writes,

“Civility ought not to be confused with niceness and mere etiquette or dismissed as squeamishness about differences. It is a tough, robust, substantive concept that is critical to both democracy and civil society, and a manner of conduct that will be decisive for the future.”[7]

 

[1] Ralph W. Emerson, “American Civilization,” The Atlantic, April 1, 1862, 2, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1862/04/american-civilization/306548/?single_page=true.

[2] Ibid.

[3] J. Anthony Lukas, “Something’s Gone Terribly Wrong in New York,” review of The Closest of StrangersThe New York Times, September 9, 1990, http://www.nytimes.com/1990/09/09/books/something-s-gone-terribly-wrong-in-new-york.html.

[4] Richard J. Finneran, ed., The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, 2nd ed., vol. 1, The Poems (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 182.

[5] Martin E. Marty, By Way of Response (Nashville: Abingdon, 1981), 81.

[6] Richard J. Mouw, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 14.

[7] Guinness, Os. “The Case for Civility: and Why Our Future Depends on It.” Essay. In The Case for Civility: and Why Our Future Depends on It, 3. New York, NY: HarperCollins e-books, 2009.

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