Man, do we live in interesting times.
As I write this note, we are a week past the Capitol riots in Washington. A week away from former Vice President Joe Biden’s inauguration and the concerns surrounding that transition: from a deeply polarized society at best, to further violence at worst.
At the same time, Quebec imposed a curfew and a stay-at-home order will take effect in Ontario, as part of the state of emergency that has been declared.
Interesting times, indeed. How do we find a path forward? How do we get to a better place? I don’t pretend to know the answer, but I can offer up a suggestion — one that actually comes from my dad. And while he has been gone from my life for the past eight years, I hear his words every day. I know how he would be reacting to the news of the day.
He and I spoke often on how human beings organize themselves (or don’t) across the many contexts in which it happens — governments, companies, social organizations, families, and more. For him, the path forward was not underpinned by the rule of law, though of course the rule of law was a critical component of a functioning and balanced society. For my dad, there was something much more fundamental, something that had to be in place for laws to work.
That was the rule of civility.
My dad always taught me that civility was the absolute critical ingredient. I remember him telling me that in order for a law to be enforceable, it has to be something that most people will be inclined to align with. A law that most of the population rejects is a law that can’t be enforced. But for him, civility was the key measure for the simple reason that it provides a path to social behaviour in a way that goes far beyond the law.
Consider what happens when civility is weak or absent.
Wikipedia defines incivility as “a general term for social behaviour lacking in civility or good manners, on a scale from rudeness or lack of respect for elders, to vandalism and hooliganism, through public drunkenness and threatening behaviour.”
One can go a long way along that spectrum from civility to incivility before one is doing something illegal.
According to The Centre for Independent Studies in Australia, there are three elements to civility: respect, relations with strangers, and self-regulation. Civility is behaviour in public (and online) which demonstrates respect for others and which entails curtailing one’s own immediate self-interest when appropriate.
It’s pretty clear to see how that was lacking last week in Washington. Or when someone screams at a retailer trying to enforce mask usage. Or in many of the others ways big and small we’ve seen too often.
Here’s the good news: it’s actually easy to make a positive change every day that will lead us to a better, kinder, and frankly more successful society; let’s make civility the personal standard we strive for every day. From sharing a genuine smile and conversation next time you check out at the grocery store to holding open a door for a stranger, let’s do the little things, every day, and try to lead by example.
And when we’re challenged, such as being confronted by those who don’t think the same way we do, or share our politics, or agree with how the pandemic should be addressed, let’s all remember those three elements of civility.
I believe car dealers are good at this stuff. You serve the public, so you know the power of a smile, an open demeanour and a good ear. You’re already leaders in your communities. So let’s keep running that leadership through a filter of civility, and spread the word.
After all, we’re in this together.
I miss you, dad.