Monday, 1 October 2012

The Importance of Civility in Public Life

Mr Jones. Photo courtesy News.com.au
Australian readers of this blog will be well aware that the last 24 hours have seen the unfolding of a distasteful attack on the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard by media personality Allan Jones (details here). Mr Jones suggested that the Prime Minister's father, John Gillard, died recently of shame because his daughter, in Mr Jones' opinion, is a serial liar. The outrage from the Australian public has been strong, with a number of major sponsors dumping Mr Jones' program. As well, some regional radio stations will no longer air the program and a Facebook page has been set up to fight for Mr Jones' sacking. Mr Jones has admitted that his comments recorded at a Liberal Party function were "out of line" but has stopped short of an apology. The leader of the opposition, Mr Abbott has similarly stated that the comments were "out of line". This has led some to suggest that this appears to be an agreed Liberal party response.

I've been moved to write about civility in public life several times in recent years. Amazingly, on the last occasion Julia Gillard was again being attacked (here). As well, our last post by Dr John Quinn was also indirectly about civility (here).

Mr Abbott at the 2011 anti Carbon Tax rally. Photo credit: Alan Porritt (AAP)

Again I ask, does civility matter? The comments from another high profile public figure, suggest that it isn't valued as highly as it once was.  Civility isn't just good manners (though we could do with more of them), but rather behaviour between members of society that leads to a social code and foundational principles that help to shape a civilized society. This historically has been a major focus of political philosophers and has included concern with principles of justice, liberty, rights, freedoms, the law and the duties of citizens to government. The Carbon Tax protests in Canberra during 2011 set new low standards for public political debate. Mr Jones at a Liberal Party function has lowered the standard even further.

When people talk of civility today, they often mean the cultivation of character traits and virtues that are consistent with their own cultural and social practices. These at times simply reflect one's social class rather than well thought out ideas of civil society.  The distinction between practices that some see as demonstrating civility, and others that are uncivilised, can be based on the most tenuous of justifications.

Attempting to move beyond subjective debates about manners or a pretense of civility, requires us to return to the root of the word that is the opposite of civil. The word 'uncivil' comes from the Latin word incivilis, meaning "not of a citizen." To be civil, is to play one's part as a citizen in building a civil society. What any society needs to guard against is behaviour that runs counter to the well being of a society; that is, behaviour that strikes at the very structure and foundation of one's civil society. In the recent decades, many western democracies have seen the topic of civic virtue gaining attention. This has been particularly the case in relation to the good practices of government and the participation of citizens in relation to government. In my view, Mr Jones comments and the behaviour of others in relation to the Prime Minister have been uncivil.

In the 'The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends On It', well-known Christian Os Guinness argues that civility needs to be rebuilt in western societies like the USA (and I'd add Australia) if they are to survive:
"Civility must truly be restored. It is not to be confused with niceness and mere etiquette or dismissed as squeamishness about differences. It is a tough, robust, substantive concept… and a manner of conduct that will be decisive for the future of the American republic" (p. 3).

Os Guinness's book points to the threat of individuals and minority groups like the Religious Right and the secular Left in the USA, arguing that there is a need to avoid privileging one interest group over another, including religious groups and influential figures who believe that they can set standards for society. High profile figures like Mr Jones', who seem to believe that their views on matters of public policy have greater weight than others, can be just as dangerous.

A mature civil society will need to enable minority groups and individuals to have a voice, but they must not be allowed to establish their position by yelling the loudest or the longest in ways that damage individuals, public office and democracy. Guinness reminds us that in a democracy all have a right to believe anything, but this does not mean, "anything anyone believes is right". We need to expect differences of opinion in a civil society and also to work out ways to discuss them and reach consensus for the common good. Christians have a part to play in such public discourse, participating openly as people of faith with godliness, humility and respect for the rights of others to participate as well.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Trevor, for this piece. I agree that the question of civility in public life is an important one, and that comments such as those made recently by Alan Jones are deplorably “uncivil”. I would make one suggestion (possibly unpopular). It has disturbed me, in the aftermath of Jones’ comments, to see the way in which he has been portrayed (pictorially) in the electronic media. Almost every representation of him I have seen (in the online version of the Sydney Morning Herald, for instance) has depicted him with the kind of facial expression obviously intended to make him look like the proverbial village idiot (the one you used in your post is one of the more neutral ones I have seen). As I expressed it in an (unpublished) letter to the SMH, the way to combat hatred and disrespect is not with more hatred and disrespect: such a reaction merely demeans those responsible for it by lowering them to the level of the perpetrator.

Trevor Cairney said...

I agree with you about the images in the media. I had to work hard to find one as neutral as the one that I added to the post. Of course, one of the most common victims of this tacky type of media attack is Julia Gillard. Thanks for your comment.

Andrew Ford said...

The latest "This Americna Life" podcast (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/podcast, an American election addition ended with a similar theme.