In all the diagnoses floated about the present age, the one which seems the most intoxicating is a lack of civility. Here’s why that’s just off the mark.
You know the experience. The person in line in front of you is terribly rude to the clerk. Then you find them crying in the parking lot. They’ve just lost their mother to a heart attack.
We’re taught not to judge books by their covers and then fly off the handle at the lack of civility in our country, our world, or our discourse.
We perp walk the usual suspects
- social media
- political division
But civility isn’t the problem.
Nor is it the ugly names, political correctness, or the vain bigotry of white supremacy, toxic masculinity, or homophobia. It isn’t those damn evangelicals, the stupid Trump voters, Bernie Bros, or Hillbots.
Civility isn’t the problem.
It’s the symptom.
Division isn’t the problem.
We’ve had partisan elections for over 200 years and fought a Civil War over slavery. We butchered reconstruction and encouraged the robber barons.
A long time ago, we broke up the banks and then more recently let them merge without consequence. Until they broke the economy. But they looked so smart testifying to Congress, so we just had to let them off the hook.
We’re life-long partisans until we switch parties and then never look back.
Division isn’t the problem. It’s the symptom.
Hatred isn’t the problem.
I know this sounds strange to here from a priest, but hate isn’t the biggest issue. We hate evil and meaningless ritual. Hate empowers our rejection of idols and our change of heart.
Hating the shit we’ve done and wanting to be a better person is central to Christian theology.
In that way, hate isn’t the problem.
Neither is the hate we feel for the junk our political enemies pull or the slavetraffickers stealing girls from all over the world. Hate is the right response to the destruction of our environment, the diminishing of dignity, and the raping of our innocence for the immense profit of corporations.
We hate the evil that would cause a man to shoot up a concert or a school; drop bombs by drones on a wedding; or deporting mothers, fathers, children, and siblings to countries they’ve never lived in.
Hate is the right emotion. It isn’t the problem. It’s the symptom.
We love to talk about civility like its a panacea. Just rub a little of that on and watch all the wounds heal right up. But civility isn’t that kind of magic salve.
Civility can come with a kind of fake kindness. A kindness which says I’m being nice to you on the surface, but I feel justified in making all sorts of assumptions about you in secret. One of the most civil experiences of my life was one in which I was surrounded by people telling me what my real motives were.
What we’re talking about goes deeper than tone of voice or willingness to follow the rules of debate. These are only the parameters for public conversation. It doesn’t get us to the table or even ensure we’ll abide by the outcome.
The Civil Rights movement wasn’t civil. It was caricatured by much of the country the way Colin Kaepernick’s knee is being taken now.
What was civil? White supremacists putting up monuments during Jim Crowe. So were the KKK and public lynchings.
The debate about Guantanamo Bay was civil, as was the destruction of countless evidence of torture at Abu Ghraib.
Violence often wears the hood of civility.
Victims of groping, assaulting, and harassing are always told to stay civil. All victims of abuse: violent and systemic are pressured into civility.
The Real Problem Isn’t Civility
Civility isn’t the problem. It’s our selfish, myopic, hate-fueled rejection of our neighbor’s common humanity that’s the problem.
It isn’t that we hate. Or hate that our neighbors throw their cigarette butts on our lawn. It’s that we hate our neighbors’ humanity.
It isn’t even that we hate them, personally. It’s that we hate them enough to punish them. Destroy them.
- We want to punish abusers more than end abuse.
- We’d rather end more abuse than nurture the abused.
- We want to nurture the abused more than prevent abuse at the beginning.
- We’d rather prevent abuse at the beginning than teach our neighbors to love their children.
At the bottom of the barrel, way down there, stuck like dried food, is our love. Not our civility: that’s all surface and function. That helps us punish abuse with popular support. No, down at the bottom is genuine love for our neighbors.
The love which cares far less about being right and far more about being loving.
Because our love always comes with strings. We bake it in a ceramic dish we store our traumas in. So we mix it all up with the abuse we endured and the mixture of love and hate we took by the belt of our parents.
It’s the same impulse we embrace which wants to overlook centuries of racist violence and make new ones. From new poll taxes and gerrymandering to blocking immigration. Same as it ever was, once again justified. Never reaching down to the bottom. Never bringing out the love we’ve forgotten about or the love we long for.
All our problems are missing love.
All they possess: the fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, hatred, incorrigibility, incivility, division: are not the presence of the problem, but the absence of our need.
Our need is love. The great longing of our hearts and the need in our nature is love. We don’t long to be right half as much as we long to be loved.
But absent love, how do we know it? Might we mistake it for something else?
If we’re surrounded with power and opportunities to break the souls of others, how do we reject it? How do we reject the evil so that we can embrace the good? If all we’ve ever known and all the world offers us is power, not love? Certainty, not love? Anxiety and frustration and not love?
How can we learn to be fully human if the world doesn’t offer us love?
Isn’t the greater position then, to become ambassadors of love? A love which worries less about its packaging and more about its soul? Isn’t that the point, then?
So we shouldn’t only pit love against hate. We should pit love against fear and certainty and rigidity because these are the instruments of destruction.
Pit love against the breaking of our social bonds so that we can love in spite of our difference. So that it becomes much harder to judge that book wrongly by its cover. And makes it that much harder for discrimination to be tolerated. For the sake of civility, of course.