How to be civil in an uncivil world
On Plato and civility: reflecting on Plato during his traditionally recognized birthday month, and civility for International Civility Month + win a YEAR of WONDRIUM!
May is the month that scholars traditionally deem to be the birthday of Plato. Also, certain authorities have declared that May is International Civility Awareness Month.
I’ve been thinking of both of these topics of late.
Plato and civility are never far from my mind, but I recently emerged from an experience that caused me to lean and reflect on them all the more.
(For those new to the Civic Renaissance community, my upcoming book on civility will be published by St. Martin’s press in May 2023.)
A recent, tumultuous business transaction prompted me to consider how civility applies to the real world—a and to ask a question that you may have considered, too.
How can we be civil in an uncivil world?
Is it possible for people who are committed to the principles of decency, courteousness, and treating others with basic respect to succeed and thrive when others do not abide by these principles?
Or is it a hopeless cause?
In a recent business situation, the opposite party lacked all manner of basic decency.
Their behavior did not quite reach the level of illegal — although it did come perilously close—they were certainly unethical. More than anything, however, they were just terribly unprofessional and unpleasant to work with.
But their conduct reminded me of the importance of basic civility that many of us take for granted. It is only when norms of courtesy and respect are broken that we fully appreciate their importance to helping us co exist with others in society.
It’s an important truth: we note and appreciate civility most in its absence.
I define civility as the basic respect we are owed by virtue of our shared dignity and equal moral worth as human beings. We owe this to others regardless of who they are, what they look like, where they are from, whether or not we like them, and whether or not they can do anything for us.
I live and breathe civility and have studied social norms across history and culture— including countless instances of when they have been broken. I was still taken aback by how unpleasant the entire interaction was because of the absence of civility and mutual respect.
From the outset the opposite party was more than rude. They dispensed of basic courtesies from the get go. They didn’t even attempt to appear generous, amicable, or conscientious.
They were single-minded in their aim: all things personal aside, they wanted to get the absolute best deal possible at any cost.
Business is business, I’m sure they were thinking.
They forgot that there was a person on the other end of the transaction.
This resulted in me feeling used, squeezed, bullied, nickeled and dimed throughout negotiations.
It brought out the worst in me.
Instead of making me want to help them or instead of making me want to reach an agreement of mutual benefit, their conduct inflamed my baser nature, tempting me to go “scorched-earth,” ensuring they didn’t get what they wanted even if it hurt me, too.
I was frustrated by the fact that we were operating on two different moral and ethical levels.
I tried to stay high when they went low, yet every grating exchange with them made me want to sink to their level, where all bets and codes of decency were off.
In the end, rather miraculously, we came to an agreement.
I managed to prevent my baser nature from winning out. I was able to rise above the pettiness and the vindictiveness that I wanted to respond with— a facet of the human personality that we all share when we feel we are under threat.
But it wasn’t an experience I particularly enjoyed.
I was left with feelings of frustration and exhaustion. I felt like I had been disrespected and degraded.
I also felt disappointed in myself.
Most of us have probably had thoughts like this during and after interactions with people who are willing to do whatever it takes to get the upper hand:
Should I have been tougher?
Was my commitment to civility in the face of incivility a handicap?
Did my attempt to uphold my values allow me to be taken advantage of?
This experience has caused me to consider the practical importance of civility in life.
Won’t the person who is willing to go low—one who is willing to throw off the shackles of decency and civility—always win out?
How to be good in bad world
“How to be civil in an uncivil world” is a variation of an important question that people have been considering for a long, long time: how can a good person succeed in a world of evil?
Renaissance thinker and author of The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli, who we have explored in a past CR issue, observed that, in history those who tend to gain and maintain power appear to have morals publicly, but privately dispense with their values the moment they get in the way.
“Politics have no relation to morals,” wrote Machiavelli.
Also in The Prince: “Thus it is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, religious, and also to be so; but you must have the mind so disposed that when it is needful to be otherwise you may be able to change to the opposite qualities.”
In other words, Machiavelli argues that one who wishes to be powerful must be willing to dispense with the moral bounds of civility if the need arises.
While the civil person is contained by their commitment to civility, the uncivil person can do whatever is necessary to win.
Socrates—the Greek philosopher Plato’s teacher, and the protagonist in his dialogues—took a different view. He would take issue with how Machiavelli defines “winning.”
Socrates said that justice is to the soul what health is to the body. If a person gets the better end of a business deal, wins an argument, or comes out on top of a political battle, but does so by cutting corners and being dishonest, he hasn’t really “won” anything.
His soul is unhealthy and sick.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates attacks the poet Homer, the educator of Greece, because he doesn’t like the values that Homer’s poems promote.
Achilles, the protagonist of The Iliad, embodies the ethics of revenge, slaughter, and vainglory.
Odysseus, the protagonist of The Odyssey, embodies the ethic of wiliness and deceit in order to come out on top of any situation.
Socrates purposes a new ethic: one that loves wisdom.
He wants to trade the ethic of revenge, “might makes right,” and vindictiveness with a shared love and pursuit of goodness, beauty, and truth.
Socrates believes that anyone who acts with injustice does so out of ignorance—after all, who would willingly make themselves sick? Who would knowingly choose sickness of the soul?
“Living well and living rightly are the same thing,” Socrates said in The Crito.
Socrates argues that a just person has an excellent and healthy soul, and the function of a just soul and person is to seek the justice and soulish health of others, too.
Socrates noted that it is not then the function of the just man to harm either friend or anyone else. Seeking to harm is an act of injustice, and therefore harms the harmer. The function of the just person is to seek the good of others, friends and enemies alike.
In a related sentiment, Abraham Lincoln once said, “Do I not defeat my enemy when I make him my friend?”
Final thoughts: on virtuous and vicious cycles, and on unbundling people and situations
There are three thoughts I’d like to leave with you.
First, we should not underestimate the power we each have to promote trust and civility in our world.
Second, learning to “unbundle” people and situations can help us mitigate the vicious cycles of incivility that are so detrimental to a free and flourishing society.
Third, we must remember when we encounter incivility in our modern world — and we invariably will, as the problem of incivility is endemic to human nature and human social life — we have a choice about how to respond.
Norms of decency and courtesy comprise an unwritten social contract between us and our fellow citizens. We take this contract for granted, which is why when this bond is broken, we are surprised, offended, and dismayed. When people don’t uphold their end of the social contract, we lose a little bit of faith and trust in society and others.
When that trust in others and society is corroded by the thoughtlessness and incivility of others, often we are less likely to act in good faith and civility in our future interactions. Our less-than-civil response to others may in turn cause them to be unkind to others with which they engage.
And so the vicious cycle continues.
My recent experience with bad actors made me appreciate those today who claim that “all bets are off” when it comes to decency in public life. We often hear things like, “The other side has gone to a whole new low. How can I be expected to stay civil?”
We also see evidence of the “vicious cycle” all around us in politics today. When one figure breaks norms and bounds of decency everyone else feels like they have to so as to keep up.
We contribute to this trust-corroding ripple effect when we are uncivil. Others do, too, with their incivility. The incivility of others often tempts us to relinquish the shackles of decency in order to “win.”
But we must resist—for our own sake, for others, and for society.
We cannot control the conduct of others.
We can only control ourselves.
We must also learn to mentally unbundle people and situations. This means not assuming things about their character because of one deed, word, or interaction you had with them. We must learn to unbundle situations. This means not allowing one bad interaction or instance to corrode your trust in society in general.
This is much easier in theory than in practice. This is much easier said than done. but again, in the end we cannot control others. We can only control ourselves.
Socrates and Machiavelli remind us of why we are civil in the first place. The reason to be civil isn’t instrumental. It isn’t just a tool of success. As we’ve seen, sometimes it can be an impediment to success. Civility is instead a disposition, an outgrowth of seeing people as they really are: as beings with irreducible moral worth and deserving of respect. This is worthy for it’s own sake, even if it means we don’t gain the upper hand of every business dealing.
Being uncivil is poison to the soul. When we treat people as means to our ends, it hurts and degrades them, but also us, too.
Machiavelli is famous for the amoral aphorism: “The ends justifies the means.”
Socrates would respond, “But what is your end?”
No earthly battle is worth compromising your soul for.
Here are some questions to consider:
Can you empathize with my experience? Have you had an experience where it felt like decency was not a match for indecency? Write to me with your story and how you dealt with it at firstname.lastname@example.org
Who do you find more persuasive: Machiavelli or Socrates? Do you think we can be civil in an uncivil world? Or will incivility always win out?
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Hi Alexandra. I find Marcus Aurelius Meditations 2.1 helps.
1. Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet to-day inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill. But I, because I have seen that the nature of good is the right, and of ill the wrong, and that the nature of the man himself who does wrong is akin to my own (not of the same blood and seed, but partaking with me in mind, that is in a portion of divinity), I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. To work against one another therefore is to oppose Nature, and to be vexed with another or to turn away from him is to tend to antagonism.
Thank you for this interesting reflection !
I would like to add something; I study psychology and obviously come across the necessity for people to find a reason for which they have to go through suffering. Well, most of the time there is no obvious reason. And also, very often, the thing that helps people through their most difficult time is the following : virtue.
Being able to virtuously go through suffering can be a very carrying goal when all the other reasons or motivations fall off. Here is what we can tell ourselves : I will prove God, or I will prove humanity, or myself, that it is possible to go through life with virtue. And civility is virtue.
I bet people who reflect like Machiavel does don't realize how vital for themselves it can be to be respectful and careful towards other people. Maybe they will realize it when they will face how meaningless their pursuit of money is.
I apologize for the english mistakes, hope my thought is understandable.
I wish you all a good day !