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The Threat of Civility

( [email protected] ) Jun 22, 2011 10:14 AM EDT
Who knew that a wallflower virtue like civility would be so vital to something like watching hockey? (I didn’t say playing hockey but watching it!) It was not a huge surprise to me to see another Vancouver post-Stanley Cup riot this week.  I’m sure there are a whole slew of reasons for it but one to add to the list is the long loss of civility.
Vancouver Riot

Who knew that a wallflower virtue like civility would be so vital to something like watching hockey? (I didn’t say playing hockey but watching it!)

It was not a huge surprise to me to see another Vancouver post-Stanley Cup riot this week. I’m sure there are a whole slew of reasons for it but one to add to the list is the long loss of civility. Richard Mouw, in his wise volume Uncommon Decency (please read this book, it’s that good and important), writes that civility is “public politeness.” It seems like a fairly innocuous virtue but Vancouver was exhibit A for the need for a fresh schooling in basic civility.

And not simply as preventative medicine for public mayhem but as a means in becoming fully human. The offence and embarrassment of the post-game events was its distinctly sub-human, animal quality. It’s offended all the right sensibilities to see a living, breathing human being descend into a functional Philistine. Interesting how the word civility is connected to other words like city and civic. Aristotle argued that we won’t become fully, truly human until we find the capacity to live as citizens of the city. In a city, you learn how to live with people different than yourself, to treat people who are not kin as part of a larger human family worthy of your respect, courtesy and honour.

Without basic civility, things fall apart. At first, it seems small and inconsequential, like neglecting to say thank you. But that small oversight emerges from an unseen turn of the heart towards entitlement and breeds ingratitude. It progresses from a common neglect of basic courtesies towards an active offence, say flipping the bird at a senior citizen for a thoughtless traffic mistake. Little, everyday interactions of public life become repeated irritations and the fabric of healthy community quickly frays. Incivility now seems the common way – we can’t have basic conversations about important matters (politics, faith, sex, etc.) without exaggeration, vitriol, cruel words, or inaccurately caricaturing views different from yours. At core is the inability to see the other person as part of the human community and to see yourself as part of the company of broken sinners.

One chapter in Mouw’s Uncommon Decency is called “Is hell uncivil?” He wonders whether the idea of hell is something that promotes incivility (can a gentle, civil person believe in hell?) but I think the question has another interesting angle – is the nature and reality of hell uncivil? Wednesday’s West Coast events lead me to think that hell may be eerily reminiscent of the streets of Vancouver last night, teeming with every graceless incivility as the fabric of society unravels in frightening ways.