One of the definitions of civility is “the act of showing regard for others,” and that is how I see it. It is a synonym for politeness. But it is more than that. Politeness can be perfunctory with an air of detachment, as is the case with much learned behavior. Civility is about being considerate, even respectful, to both intimates and adversaries.
“Civility costs nothing and buys everything,” Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, English aristocrat, once advised her daughter. That is the kind of civility one practices to gain some kind of advantage or to impress someone who may improve your circumstances. Real civility requires no payback and is often rendered to those who are neither friends nor supporters.
Even President Richard Nixon held civility in high regard, at least to the faces of his adversaries if not behind their backs, once proclaiming it essential to our national well-being. He declared it critical ‘”to establish a climate of decency and civility, in which each person respects the feelings and the dignity and the God-given rights of his neighbor.” Sadly, these words came in a public address about the Watergate investigation, which ultimately forced him to resign in disgrace. Even so, he refrained from uncivil behavior toward those who unseated him for the two decades that remained in his life.
Nixon never resorted to name calling of political opponents or those who disagreed with him except in the company of his closest confidants. Another Republican President, Donald Trump, has changed our whole attitude toward civility as desired behavior. It is true that this kind of behavior is increasingly prevalent and Trump has become a target of the very behavior he has exemplified since he was a presidential candidate in 2016.
It is tougher to be civil when you are under fire, fairly or unfairly, especially if you are being disrespected and demeaned. It takes true character, even courage, to rise above it.
There is something to be said for a president being a class act instead of a crass act.
Although few had to withstand more vilification directed at her and her family than former First Lady Michelle Obama, her character and class did shine through with seven little words: “When they go low, we go high.”
Name-calling and personal disparagement of public figures obviously pre-dated Trump. He just picked up on a virulent wave of expletives and rudeness directed toward Obama and ran with it.
Obama’s image was being sold to the masses on T-shirts, bumper stickers and signs, according to a 2014 Chicago Tribune article by Geoffrey R. Stone, with some of the following statements: “Dump This Turd;” “Coward! You Left Them To Die in Benghazi;” “Somewhere in Kenya a Village Is Missing Its Idiot;” “Islam’s Trojan Horse;” “Pure Evil,” and “I’m Not A Racist: I Hate His White Half Too.” And that’s just a sampling of the garbage directed at an American president that extended shamelessly to his family.
So I’m sure haters are cranking out similar stuff about the current occupant of the White House. Much of the commercialism and dissemination of Obama hate originated on websites and social media, but the last president to be maligned this brutally and personally is now one of our most beloved. Abraham Lincoln often suffered degradation at the hands of the press, which were clearly more openly partisan than the mainstream media is today, especially in the South. Lincoln was called everything from “fiend” and “buffoon” to “butcher,” baboon” and “ignoramus.”
But then again, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy and Lincoln’s archenemy, refrained from such personal attacks as did Lincoln toward him. Even during a bloody war, they went high. The generals— Lee and Grant— were civil toward each other to the end. The Civil War itself wasn’t so civil.
There seems to be the same dark prejudice behind the hatred spewed at both Lincoln and Obama. Obama is black and Lincoln stood up for the blacks and freed the slaves. In many ways, not a lot has been accomplished over those 150 intervening years. I am pretty sure we still have some racial issues to resolve.
One of the reasons why this public behavior has drawn in many public figures, including senators, governors and celebrities, is that everyone feels his or her truth is somehow ordained and they are justified in spewing this stuff— just as the slave owners, citing biblical sources, did toward northern abolitionists and vice-versa.
If you look hard enough, you can find something in the Bible to legitimize or condemn every modern issue or behavior that would have never been imagined in those times. I was recently directed to II Timothy 4, and the wisdom here is uncanny:
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own liking and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.