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Civilization and civility
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Forsyth County News


It’s hard to make sweeping statements about the present, but it would seem that there have been few periods in recent history where political rhetoric and unwillingness to compromise across party lines has been so strident and strong. We are a nation with so much going for us and yet we can’t seem to put it all together and get back on a positive, optimistic, upward path.
The concepts of civilization and civility are not easy to define. Webster’s College Dictionary defines “civilization” as “an advanced state of human society in which a high level of culture, science and government has been reached."

Rome and the word “civilization” are intimately linked, yet watching gladiators fight to the death or sacrificing humans for public pleasure might challenge the meaning of “an advanced state of human society.” But everything is relative, and to ancient Rome, this did not seem to be a major concern.

We think of ourselves as an advanced civilization, both in an absolute sense and relative to others that have risen (and fallen) in the past. But how much of this focuses on advancements in science and technological applications and how much on human behavior? Clearly, one of the most important factors must be how people interact with each other.

A related concept is that of “civility.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “civilized conduct, especially courtesy, politeness.” But in an interesting article, written in 1997 as part of the “Beyond Intractability Project” at the University of Colorado, Guy and Heidi Burgess describe something quite different. They focused on the nature of current public debate and propose that “our inability to deal with broad range of problems is largely attributable to the destructive ways in which the issues are being addressed. This raises a crucial and increasingly controversial question -- what exactly do we mean by ‘civility?’”

They go on to write: “Clearly, civility has to mean something more that mere politeness. The movement will have accomplished little if all it does is get people to say, "Excuse me please," while they (figuratively) stab you in the back. ... There must also be more to civility than a scrupulous adherence to the laws governing public-policy decision making. Clearly, there are numerous instances in which the parties to public-policy conflicts act in ways which are destructive and inappropriate, even though they are (and should continue to be) legal.”

They believe that “ ... any reasonable definition of civility must recognize that the many differing interests which divide our increasingly diverse society will produce an endless series of confrontations over difficult moral and distributional issues ... [many of which] ... will have an irreducible win-lose character and, hence, not be amenable to consensus resolution. While continuing confrontation is inevitable, the enormous destructiveness which commonly accompanies these confrontations is not.”

Three points seem especially important to emphasize. The first is that there will almost always be disagreement by reasonable people on important issues. The second is that although negotiation is frequently possible, it is not always possible to come up with acceptable compromises or even Solomonic solutions. And finally, there seems to be an inherent human tendency to win whatever battle one fights.

Last week, President Obama addressed the nation from Tucson, Ariz. An incredible act of violence brought him there. He spoke eloquently, in a way that touched the heart of the nation, and in his comments, he addressed issues that went beyond this unconscionable act and touched on issues that applied to the general state of affairs in our nation today. Two sentences from his speech stood out in my mind:

“But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized -- at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do -- it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.” This is civility.

Most importantly, a quote that I believe should go down in the annals of the great statements of our national leaders, he said: "... let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.” This is the basis of community and of a civil society.

The key question is “how do we get there?” Interestingly, in one sense, the answer is simple. It is lies within all of us -- in how we deal with others, particularly when we disagree.

It’s not a question of giving in. Dealing with controversy in a forthright and open manner can yield very positive results. We must seek better ways to present fact in the face of emotion, and better ways to listen, even to things we would rather not hear. We need to spend more time thinking about compromise and how we can turn zero-sum thinking into win/win results. In most cases, with a little flexibility and imagination, such options do exist.

We must also find ways to reduce the urge to win in every situation. Perhaps it was an ingrained survival mechanism, but with public issues there are few life-or-death situations where losing will be fatal. Perhaps the compromise is not on a particular issue, but on the outcome of a series of issues -- win some, lose some, as long as there is reasonable balance. There are few things that escalate emotions out of control as intransigence and a desire to win no matter what.

At the national level, political processes seem to be approaching a “tipping point” where they become totally dysfunctional. President Obama’s remarks were intended, I believe, to highlight the danger and serve as a clarion call for a change in direction. Each of us can help make that happen, both in how we behave towards others, particularly in public processes, and through the pressure that can be brought to bear on those who we have chose to represent us.

I often come back to a quote from my favorite Georgia philosopher -- that sage of the Okefenokee, Pogo Possum. His immortal words? “We has met the enemy and he is us!” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could turn that inside out? We could become our own best friends, driving civilization into unprecedented civility by taking personal actions “to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”

Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at