|Mr Jones. Photo courtesy News.com.au|
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.
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).
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.