“Inconceivable!” Vizzini exclaimed.
“You keep using that word, I don't think you know what it means,” Inigo Montoya replied
— “The Princess Bride” movie (1987)
Civility has become a four-letter word to some people.
In fact, critics of restoring civil discourse in this hyper-partisan era have described these efforts, like The Tennessean’s Civility Tennessee campaign, as stupid, insipid or tone-deaf.
It is as if they are saying it is inconceivable in the Age of Trump that anyone should even try to be civil.
After all, consider the President’s incendiary tweets, his over-the-top and divisive rhetoric, and his insults toward his target of the day.
A few days ago, the term civility entered in the national debate with the news of Virginia restaurant Red Hen refusing to serve presidential Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders on principle.
Sanders tweeted: “… I was told by the owner of Red Hen in Lexington, VA to leave because I work for @POTUS and I politely left. Her actions say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so.”
There were calls for civility including from The Washington Post’s editorial board, which argued “Let the Trump team eat in peace.”
Meanwhile, detractors like the Los Angeles Times' columnist Michael Hiltzik claimed that civility amounted to quashing dissent.
Civility means making sacrifices
I embrace the classical definition of the word “civility,” which comes from the Latin word for “citizen.”
This refers to a citizen’s responsibility to society:
Making contributions and sacrifices,
supporting our democracy,
exercising our rights while defending the rights of others,
speaking truth to power to the people who govern us,
demanding truth from our public and civic institutions, and
not least important, voting.
It is easy to be tempted to regress to incivility, which I would describe as all-consuming rage, apathy or disdain toward the other.
In my job, I regularly receive phone calls and correspondence from people who say some of the ugliest things.
Most harrowing for me was a message from a man who said he hoped someone would break into my house and rape my spouse because he disagreed with an editorial I wrote about immigration enforcement last summer.
I was stunned, but I shook it off. I wonder, though, what possible response would I have for him?
Today, what helps me get overcome temptations to stop practicing civility are meditation and prayer, exercise and music (from listening to recently taking up guitar lessons).
I reflect upon the need to recharge myself daily to be self-disciplined and to work hard to respect the dignity of my neighbor.
This year, I gave up Twitter feuds as a New Year’s resolution because I spent too many hours engaging in pointless virtual swashbuckling.
I gave myself permission to mute and ignore cyberbullies and trolls. Sparingly, of course.
And, I’ve moved a lot of conversations from the social media space to the physical world — where I can grab a cup of coffee or a meal and discuss issues face to face.
A meal is a great place to have those conversations. So, while Red Hen owner Stephanie Wilkinson was in her rights to deny Sanders service, it was a missed opportunity.
Civility means having a debate
On June 11 a few colleagues and I attended Nashville’s Community Iftar, a public celebration of the sunset meal during Ramadan to break the daily fast.
Despite enduring abuse, vandalism and suspicion, local Muslims opened their tables to people of all faiths to enjoy a meal and a talk.
The evening’s topic: Civility. The keynote speaker: Attorney Samar Ali, a former state official who faced abuse from detractors just because of her faith.
She smiled throughout her speech, and these remarks really spoke to me:
“Being civil requires an inner sense of security. When you are a secure person, it is easier for you to be civil and open yourself up to learning about another person’s beliefs, even if they are different than your own.
“Being civil is therefore actually finding peace within yourself first. Start there. If you find yourself being uncivil to another person, it is sadly and dangerously likely coming from a place within.
“Being civil also does not mean being quiet or shutting down protest and critique from non-majority cultures. Quite the contrary.
“In fact, our country’s democracy demands of us as citizens that we speak with the purpose of contributing to the American debate that leads us to a more perfect union. Without that, we’ve missed the point.”
She is right.
Civility is not the end, it’s a means to an end. It’s a framework to create conversations of substance where people agree to listen to each other and not belittle one another.
Civility is essential to our republic and we are better off practicing it, as hard as it is today.