The Measure of Our Civility

civilityMy wife and I have been asked to speak on civility. We have been specifically asked to base our remarks on President Gordon B. Hinckley’s book, “Standing for Something.” After referencing his writings, it has occurred to me that civility is a much larger topic than I first thought.

Unless otherwise stated, all quotes are from President Hinckley’s book.

How we treat each other, and how we refer to each other is affected by many things, like our upbringing, our culture, the time in which we are born, etc. I was born into a military family in an era that was still recovering from the second world war. There were still many suspicions of other cultures, and many still held grudges based on perceptions of race and culture. Much has changed in the world since then.

If I am to become Christlike in my attitudes and my behavior, my first step is becoming aware of where I am deficient, and then working to overcome how I was raised, to be a better person. This takes awareness and repentance. It also requires a willingness to put aside old patterns in favor of new ones that are more appropriate and in line with the will of God.

The role of culture

Culture is what we call the rules of polite living among a particular set of people. These rules are made up of expected or tolerated behaviors, like whether or not is alright to strike your wife and children or who is expected to do the cooking at home. In some cultures the women don’t cook, the men do.

In some cultures, like ours in the United States, the freedom to be an individual and different from others is celebrated and is held as a cherished right. In other cultures, like Japan, the good of the society is most important. Individual creative expression is frowned upon and sometimes punished.

Almost all of our expectations in life are wrapped up in the definition of our culture. The number of holidays you expect to celebrate this year, which holidays you expect to celebrate, and the activities you expect to engage in for each holiday are defined by our culture. Whether or not it is okay to drop in unannounced on a neighbor is defined by our culture. How long you stay at someone’s house when invited for dinner is based on our cultural expectations. Whether or not it is considered rude or expected to burp at the table is based on cultural expectations.

Cultural differences often cause us to be uncomfortable because we don’t yet understand the rules of the other culture. Once we become comfortable with the rules of someone’s society we are able to comfortably navigate the expectations and assumptions of what is behaviorally right and wrong.

I used to think that, as an American, I had no culture. I couldn’t think of anything that set me apart like my friends from Polynesia, Asia, Africa, or Latin America. It wasn’t until I learned more about their cultures that I began to see that my own culture was so deeply ingrained in me that it had become invisible to me.

In the culture I was in, a man worked outside the home and the woman raised the children in the home. Some women worked outside the home, but whenever possible, it was considered better for the whole family if there was one who earned an income, and another who primarily reared the children. One of the reasons the whole topic of women working outside the home sometimes makes us uncomfortable is because this once very cut-and-dried expectation has been changing over the last 50 years as conditions in society have changed. As a culture, we haven’t settled on a new “normal” yet, though the prophets still encourage us to strive for this ideal.

In America, if I indicate the number two with my fingers and my palm faces my body, I am completely within the cultural norms for America. If I do this exact same thing in Great Britain, I have just flipped someone off. In Great Britain, while holding up two fingers, the palm of the hand must face away from the body to indicate the number two.

It is this lack of understanding of the basic rules of behavior and expectations from one culture to another that encourages us to sometimes make fun of other people or belittle their culture as inferior or being made up of a lot of nonsense. We are the ones who are ignorant, not them.

President Hinckley said, “… far too often we make too much of our differences. We therefore obscure and at times completely overlook the significant and enduring ways in which we are alike.”

He went on to say, “I believe we all recognize our great responsibility and opportunity to stand united for those qualities in public and private life that speak of virtue and morality. I believe we agree on the need for respect for all men and women as children of God, the need for civility and courtesy in our relationships, and the need to preserve the family as the most fundamental and important unit of society.”

The word “civil” refers specifically to anything having to do with citizens of a country. It makes up the root of the word civility, the ability of people to get along with each other politely and courteously. Though technically speaking, barbarians may be civilians in their own country, we call them barbarians because of their rudeness, brutality, and their inability to get along peacefully with their neighbors.

“As one writer has said, “People might think of a civilized community as one in which there is a refined culture. Not necessarily; first and foremost it is one in which the mass of people subdue their selfish instincts in favor of the common well-being.””

Identifying incivility

We live in an age where incivility has been raised to an art form. People have become famous for their ability to abuse other people on the radio or on the stage. Films have even started to portray as models for our youth, people they refer to as “anti heroes.” These are people who save the day in a crisis, but are, at heart, barbarians. They lack all redeeming virtues. Faith in true heroes has faded into the distant past. People want heroes who have grit and weaknesses that can be exploited for a good story.

Put-downs, ridicule, belittling others, being vulgar in our expressions, or being rude, crude, or insensitive to others are all signs of incivility.

Among our young adults and youth we often hear people refer to each other by only their last name. This shows a significant lack of respect for the family name and reputation of the person being addressed.

When I was in high school, only those who thought themselves better than me called me Merrill to get my attention. Those who respected me either called me by my first name, or if they were older than me they called me Mr. Merrill.

Many years ago when I was a Sunday School President, we had problems with behavior in the classrooms. Most of the teachers were of college age. They told the youth to call them by their first names because they felt “old”, like their parents, when someone called them Bro. or Sis. So and so. I couldn’t convince them that children will not respect an adult who acts like one of their friends.

As uncomfortable as it is to transition into adulthood, we all have to learn the lesson that there is such a thing as a respectful social distance between us and someone older than us, between us and those who are younger than us, or between us and someone who is in a position of authority. When my wife is at home I call her Elaine, but when she is teaching a class she is Sister Merrill. I cannot expect her students to respect her if I don’t show her respect.

Between older adults, the differences are not as pronounced as they are when we are young adults. You may still feel like you just graduated from high school. You may identify more with the youth than you do with the older adults in the ward. But believe me, if you want to be treated as a teacher, and not as one of the youth, and ignored, you must learn to separate yourself from your students and insist they call you by Brother or Sister So and so, and not call you by your first name. It will make all the difference in the world in your classroom management and in your ability to be an effective teacher to the youth or children.

Civility in language

How we speak to each other marks our level of civility. This includes expressions of patience, forbearance, tolerance, and kindness. Have you noticed that the language of the Brethren is always kind, polite, courteous, and respectful? Have you noticed that the language of the scriptures is also free from name calling, slights, rudeness, and any unkind racial remark?

To refer back to what I quoted from President Hinckley earlier, all people on the planet are children of God. We are all more alike than we are different. Many of us have been taught to point out and dwell on our cultural or racial differences as the main point of any problems, but this is not how the Lord’s anointed servants speak, and neither should we.

I was raised in a military family in a time when it was commonplace to say unkind things based on a person’s race or culture. I still have to watch my words and expressions so as not to be offensive to others. We can learn to watch what we say and learn how to treat people differently than in the way we might have been raised. But it might take a deliberate effort on our part to learn a better way of behaving toward others.

President Hinckley taught that it is civility that determines how we treat each other. “Civility requires us to restrain and control ourselves, and at the same time to act with respect toward others.” Civility is the language of charity.

Civil behavior towards others is how we express the true love of Christ.

How civility is expressed

Civility is not just how we use language. It is also how we treat others. One who is truly civil is concerned with the welfare of others. Ask yourself how much of your time and energy in life is directed to helping others in your community or the world? Joseph Smith said:

“Love is one of the chief characteristics of Deity, and ought to be manifested by those who aspire to be the sons of God. A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.”
(History of the Church, 4:227; from a letter from Joseph Smith to the Twelve, Dec. 15, 1840, Nauvoo, Illinois, published in Times and Seasons, Jan. 1, 1841, p. 258; this letter is incorrectly dated Oct. 19, 1840, in History of the Church.)

This ranging and anxiousness to bless others is not because we want praise or recognition, it comes only from the desire to bless and improve others’ lives. Think of the frightening task Alma the Younger and the sons of Mosiah took on themselves. When they repented of their past behavior they could not rest until all the damage they had caused had been fixed. Then, when they had repaired their damage, Alma was called to preside in the church, and the sons of Mosiah couldn’t rest until they had gotten permission from their father to go on a mission to the Lamanites.

This mission lasted 14 years. I’m sure they did not intend it to last that long, but they could not allow themselves to come home until the Lord brought them back from their labors. They could not bear the thought of any of their brethren, even if they were Lamanites, to leave mortality without the opportunity to repent and find joy in the gospel message. This is Christlike love.

Here is a series of one-line quotes from President Hinckley that all speak of how we express civility:
• The most effective medicine for the sickness of self-pity is to lose ourselves in the service of others.
• The best antidote I know for worry is work.
• The best cure for weariness is the challenge of helping someone who is even more tired.
• One of the great ironies of life is this: He or she who serves almost always benefits more than he or she who is served.
• Strong hands and determined wills can improve the world and the condition of its people.

I will leave you with two quotes from President Hinckley.

“It is not enough just to be good. We must be good for something. We must contribute good to the world. The world must be a better place for our presence. And the good that is in us must be spread to others. This is the measure of our civility.”

“Caring for others, seeing and reaching beyond our own wants and comforts, cultivating kindness and gentility toward others from all of life’s situations and circumstances – these are of the essence of civility, a virtue to be admired, a virtue to be acquired.”

2 COMMENTS

    • My wife and I had never heard talks on civility before, but the response we received from our talks was far more than we ever anticipated. I guess there were many who were glad to hear the topic addressed.

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