Henry David Thoreau, who often had tongue in cheek, quipped: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
We look at the world through our own unique set of eyes. There are lots of types of eyes — beyond blue, brown and hazel. There are cynical eyes; suspicious eyes; loving eyes; naive and innocent eyes.
To follow Thoreau’s quip I would ask, “Are you looking at the world through civil eyes” (pun intended)
We view the world through the lens of our unique experiences — all the experience we’ve accumulated so far. Some of us have been loved sensitively and carefully; some have been abused or neglected.
Some who have been abused or neglected turn those things on their heads and become kind, loving, caring, sensitive persons. Some don’t.
Some who have been loved sensitively and carefully turn those things on their heads and become abusive and destructive. Go figure.
I have looked into thousands of pairs of eyes — smiling eyes and sad eyes; bright eyes and tired eyes; accepting, open eyes and eyes that scrutinize. (No pun intended.)
I’ve been thinking about civil eyes. Where are the mentors today for civility? Who are the models for civility?
In his commencement speech at Johns Hopkins several years ago, William Brody, college president, talked about civility and suggested that, in addition to an IQ, each of us has a CQ, a civility quotient, which he said is, “the measure that indicates not where your journey will take you, but rather, what kind of voyage you’ll have along the way.”
Civility, he said, is more than good manners and observing social niceties. He points to the work of a Johns Hopkins professor, Pier Massimo Forni, who has been digging into the idea of civility for some time.
Forni points out that, “Civility has its root in the Latin word civitas meaning city. So, the concept of civility is inseparable from the vital notion of good citizenship.
“The civil person,” says Dr. Forni, “is the good citizen, the good neighbor.”
In ancient times, when the city could aptly represent the body politic, civility was understood to mean the ability to live with others in the city; not merely to peacefully co-exist, but to participate in the life of the community and to contribute to that community. Citizenship was a privilege. But it was also understood to carry an obligation, the obligation of civility.
In his commencement address, President Brody suggested to the graduates that civility, ‘far from being a burden, may be the key to your future success.’
He asked the graduates if they knew who William Dawes was, and he pointed out that Dawes, as every person in Lexington knows, was the ‘other rider’ with Paul Revere, warning the good citizens that the British were coming.
Not many responded to William Dawes’s call to action, but nearly all the so-called Minute-men responded to Paul Revere’s call, because Paul Revere had a high CQ; he was involved in his community, volunteering his time and efforts — he was well-known and respected, he was a contributor; the people knew him and he knew them — he knew which doors to knock on.
He said, “William Dawes, on the other hand, had no such base of support, and so was just a man on horseback, yelling in the night. He arrived in Lexington with little else to show than saddle sores.”
Here he draws on the wisdom of Yogi Berra who put it so succinctly: “Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t go to yours.”
He points out that the midnight ride of Paul Revere was not the story of a single, solitary, heroic individual, but the ‘culmination of trust and respect developed through years of personal interaction with and support of others.’
Paul Revere, a Unitarian, by the way, is, of course, a legendary figure in American history, but Brody points out that he is also a model for civility.
Who are your models of civility?
My first model and mentor for ministry and civility was the Reverend Bill Rice, Unitarian minister in the Wellesley congregation where I was youth advisor. He strongly encouraged me to UU ministry.
Bill chaired the committee that was charged with facilitating the merger of the Universalists and Unitarians, a task he successfully completed in 1961.
In my first year of seminary, a few days after he had me do my first sermon from the Wellesley pulpit, Bill died suddenly — a devastating loss for me. While I remember the memorial service for him, I can recall, verbatim, only one sentence. It was spoken by a minister friend of his, the Rev. Ed Cahill, who said, “Bill Rice was a civilized man.”
That sentence, that statement, that assessment of a man, has stayed with me since it was uttered more than 42 years ago.
Bill Rice was a civilized man.
He was a well-educated man, to be sure. But that’s the least of what Ed Cahill meant praising him as a civilized man.
As a civilized man, Bill was self-possessed, but not self-absorbed. He was self-assured, but not pompous — he didn’t have a pretentious bone in his body.
I knew him only in the last five or so years of his life — he died at age 65, four months before his planned retirement.
I know that one doesn’t become self-possessed from day one, or 21, or 51. It doesn’t come in one’s genes, like eye color. It takes time to be tested by adversity; it takes time to develop ego integrity, which is to say, blending all the parts of one’s character, all the experiences of one’s life — all the successes, and the failures, all the guilt and regrets, as well as the things about which one feels proud.
It takes time and experience to develop a sense of humility.
It takes time and experience to emerge from troubles with a well-developed sense of humor.
It takes time and experience to learn how to listen with empathy, which is different from sentimentality.
It takes time and experience to become a truly civilized man — to gain a high CQ.
Bill Rice was a civilized man, and as such, he was a role model for me. He set a high standard of civility — not by what he said, not even by what he did, but by who and what he was because what we are deep inside comes to the surface much more than we realize. That’s why the care of the inner life — spirituality, if you will — is a key to our well being in the world.
Who are your role models?
How would you define or explain ‘civility?’
Civility, as I see it, is more than mere politeness, more than good manners. Politeness and manners can be a cover for basic incivility, or a facade for evil. We used to listen to a radio show called The Shadow, that opened with a question: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? (Ah, ha ha ha!) The Shadow knows!”
It’s interesting that the program started in 1937, when insidious evil had emerged in Nazi Germany, a few years before Pearl Harbor. The Shadow ‘knew.’
Adolf Eichmann is an example of evil hidden behind a facade of polite manners. Eichmann was responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews under Hitler’s Nazi regime. A 60 Minutes documentary of his trial at Nuremberg included a witness to his crimes against the Jewish people, a Holocaust survivor, who, when he looked at Eichmann for the first time following the Holocaust, fainted. When asked about it he said, “The devil is a gentleman,” which is a line from Shakespeare’s King Lear: “The Prince of Darkness is quite a gentleman.”
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Who knows what goodness is waiting to emerge from the hearts of men? How do we learn about the nature of good and evil?
We learn about the nature of good and evil in a variety of ways — one way is to have a person who becomes an example to follow, a role model.
We do that mostly on an unconscious level — sometimes we don’t even become conscious of such a role model until long after they’re gone.
Where are the role models for civility, today?
In the course of my ministry I’ve had the good fortune to have seen many — some well-known people, like Christopher Reeve — but most are simply every day folks who live good, decent life, and about whom one could say, “She was a civilized woman – he was a civilized man,” as Ed Cahill said about Bill Rice.
As we enter the 2012 presidential campaign, we’ll be on the lookout for civil discourse and we’re likely to witness uncivil discourse, not so much from the candidates as those who make a living off of the campaign by reporting on it, especially talk radio and television commentators.
We will be on the look out for role models for civility. We don’t have to look too far — most every Friday there are two such models on The News Hour, Mark Shields and David Brooks.
Allegheny College recently awarded David Brooks and Mark Shields the inaugural Prize for Civility in Public Life.
Shields and Brooks are a pair of rare birds who provide some assurance that civility is still alive and well in America. They are role models for civility.
The Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life each year will honor two people — one from each side of the ideological spectrum, who, “show noteworthy civility while continuing to fight passionately for their beliefs.”
Brooks and Shields were the first to be selected to receive the award. At the award ceremony the college president, James Mullen, said:
“Every week Mr. Brooks and Mr. Shields come together on ‘PBS NewsHour’ to vigorously debate the issues of the day — always respecting each other as they do so.”
He said. “They show us that civility does not require one to be tepid. Mr. Brooks proudly argues from the right; Mr. Shields, from the left. But they advocate their views with steadfast civility. It is an honor for me to bestow this award upon them today.”
Mark Shields responded, “I am touched and honored by this award.” He said he believes the award given to him and David Brooks “is an award for ‘PBS News Hour,’ and specifically to Jim Lehrer, who set the News Hour’s standard of civility.“
Shields said Jim Lehrer taught him to presume that “in every discussion that the person on the other side probably loves their country as much as you love our country; that they care about their children’s and grandchildren’s future as much as you do; that they treasure the truth as much as you do; and that you don’t demonize somebody on the other side.”
David Brooks praised Allegheny College for its promotion of civility, saying, “I think many great colleges teach subjects, but they don’t always teach character. It’s a pleasure to be involved with a school that has taken that seriously for so many centuries and still does today.”
(Allegheny College started in 1815 and was open to women in 1870.)
Mullen said, “Most worrisome for me is the prospect that fewer and fewer young people will seek a career in public service. I worry we are at risk of losing an entire generation of public servants — with potentially catastrophic consequences for our democracy.”
He urged like-minded Americans to join Allegheny in its efforts to enhance civility, saying:
“If we want greater civility, we need to be much more serious about positively reinforcing civility whenever we see it. We must shine a bright, positive light on the unsung heroes of democracy today — the many women and men who practice partisan politics passionately, but with civility, each and every day.
“Today, there is virtually no positive reinforcement of civility. Instead, there is a fundamental imbalance in the political marketplace. Incivility is often rewarded. Civility is usually ignored.”
He said, “Civility is a choice. We must help public servants and candidates to make that choice. Until we do so, we are part of the incivility problem — no matter how politely we sit on the sidelines.”
The role of religion has been powerful, on both sides of the civility issue — sometimes promoting incivility as well as civility.
Incivility isn’t about disagreement, it’s about being disagreeable!
Incivility is about condemning those who express a different opinion or belief, whether it’s condemning them to hell-fire and brimstone, or labeling them corrupters of youth — the accusation that condemned Socrates to death.
This presidential season will be filled with confrontations over difficult moral issues, like the death penalty, health care, equitable taxation, gun control, the right of a woman to choose, and the less sensational but no less important issue of the equitable distributional of our gross national product.
Civil rights — rights established in our Constitution, include the rights to full legal, social, and economic equality. The growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in today’s America is a form of incivility. It is not subtle. It is an in-your-face insult to that which is at the very heart and soul of this nation!
Civility is the outward expression of your real religion — not the one that gives you a category to put a checkmark in when giving personal information on a standard form, but the one that gives you character — the one you live out, day to day.
Earth day is a plea for civility — the civility of ecological responsibility, as though the earth itself was a person with whom we are in an intimate relationship — a relationship characterized by sensitivity and responsibility.
The earth is speaking to us — she’s loud and clear! She is speaking a universal language that knows no national borders, no particular language, but the message is clear: pay attention! Think about the repercussions of what you are doing God is in the details: the plastic bags vs. reusable cloth bags you carry in your car and take into the supermarket, the drug store, or the package store, the type of detergent you use, the car you drive.
Civility includes ecological awareness, and the responsibility to do what you can to mitigate the growing crisis Mother Earth is facing as she ages.
One final comment: Our every-member canvass, our annual drive to raise the budget for next year, is, of course, about money, but it’s also about civility.
Generosity is an aspect of civility. Generosity is not just about money, it’s about the spirit behind the gift. So, please, don’t wait to be asked; don’t wait for someone to plead and beg and cajole. Take the initiative. Step up to the plate and preserve this place and all it stands for, and all it has been, and all that it might become.
Another Patriot, Thomas Paine, said, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country.”
“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see!”