Friday, October 4, 2013

Reclaiming Civility

My momma taught me me some manners. So did my daddy. I’ll always be sorry that when disagreeing with people who reject civility, I sometimes followed their lead. I rationalized it by saying that going by the house rules is just being polite, but I knew that wasn’t so. The Golden Rule has nothing to do with how people treat you. The Golden Rule is only about being true to yourself.

Manners are about more than philosophy; they’re about tactics, too. Every diplomat knows that—in a better world, we would forget the people who won wars and remember the ones who prevented them. 

In 2009, a CBS poll found that only 24% of women and 14% of men in the USA consider themselves feminist in the absence of a definition, even though most Americans want men and women to have equal rights—in 2010, a Paycheck Fairness Act Coalition poll found that 84% of Americans would support "a new law that would provide women more tools to get fair pay in the workplace". In 2013, University of Toronto psychologist Nadia Bashir led a team that studied public perceptions of feminists and environmentalists and found they’re unpopular because they have a reputation for rudeness. Bashir suggested listeners “may be more receptive to advocates who defy stereotypes by coming across as pleasant and approachable.”

If I could teach activists one thing, it would be to respect everyone. Some cite Martin Luther King’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” to claim King thought civility is oppressive. But his life shows the flaw in that interpretation. Where did he rant at his opponents? Matt Woodley noted that in the Birmingham letter, King "did not question his opponents' motives. Instead, he called them "men of genuine good will" whose "criticisms are sincerely set forth." "I want to try to answer your statement," he wrote, "in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms." And that he did."

King gave advice I wish I’d always remembered: "No matter how emotional your opponents are, you must be calm." In the last year of his life, he said, "The supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force." He knew civility is not an obstacle to nonviolent protest. Civility is at its heart. The adjective in "civil disobedience" was crucial to his activism. If it was not, he never would have said, “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”

Where there’s no respect, there's no love.

Three quotes to end on—and out of consideration to feminist anti-racists, none by white men:

"If we lose love and self respect for each other, this is how we finally die." —Maya Angelou

"Civility costs nothing, and buys everything." —Mary Wortley Montagu

“You should respect each other and refrain from disputes; you should not, like water and oil, repel each other, but should, like milk and water, mingle together.” —Buddha

Related: Respect everyone