The Decline of Civility

One knows one is edging inexorably towards old age when one begins to notice a decline in civility. Whatever one’s own lapses, the lapses of others begin to matter more. I’m sometimes a little taken aback at the way in which people write to the monastery or address us via Social Media, but then one meets someone whose exquisite courtesy restores the sun to its heaven and all’s well with the world. Good manners are not merely ornamental: they protect the weak, prevent the tyranny of the strong, make for ease in tricky situations, and allow individuals a kind of predictability about their encounters with others. We do not have to reinvent the wheel of social relationships every time we meet.

Why am I wittering on about civility the day before the General Election? The answer is to be found in the origins of the word itself. Civility comes from the Latin civilis, pertaining to citizenship, and is related to the qualities the Romans associated with good citizenship, including orderliness and responsible behaviour. One of the (to me) sad aspects of the pre-election campaigning has been the rather obvious appeal to personal interests at the expense of larger issues. A decline in the sense of the obligations of citizenship, of the common good, tends to go hand in hand with a decline in the sense of what is due to the individual by way of politeness and consideration. The civility of the citizen and the civility of the neighbour are linked.

As we consider how to cast our votes tomorrow, there will be much thought and prayer; but one question we can, and I’d say ought to, ask ourselves is, am I preferring self-interest to the interests of others? We may not think of voting as a religious act, but in essence it is, because it is the fulfilment of an obligation (from the Latin, religo, to bind). To be a good citizen implies much more than putting in an appearance at the ballot box every five years. It implies civility in both public and private life, and that’s something for every day of the year, not just 7 May.


6 thoughts on “The Decline of Civility”

  1. I still address many of my elders in the village as “Mr Smith” or “Mrs Jones”, because it’s how I was brought up. If I ask a depot at work to deliver a pallet or whatever, I always put thank you at the end of the request. I do feel as though I’m an oddball but I can’t change who I am.
    My boss always says thank you to any of the staff at the end of a week too.
    Manners cost nothing and yet say so much.

  2. I wonder why we allow people to be rude to us, particularly as they know that we will probably turn the other cheek. This than encourages them to be even more rude.

    When someone says that they were brought up in a certain way and were taught manners and how to behave, I actually rejoice. Because that is usually already evident in their manner and attitude towards us, but I have found that sometimes the roughest speaking, scruffily dressed individual will turn out to be just as well mannered and considerate as those raised to be more genteel.

    It does seem to me that there are now generations being raised in this country, who, despite schooling, are rude, because that is how they were brought up. Walking down any street you will hear bad language from youngsters and elders alike. Parents using it towards their children as if it’s common parlance. I hurts my ears to hear profanity used, particularly within the hearing of children, who will doubtlesss imitate it, thereby carrying it forward for yet another generation.

    And I can’t claim to have been well brought up, having been in care and coming from East London, but I can remember from my childhood, neighbours standing up if a lady entered a room, hats (more often flat caps) being doffed to ladies and general civility towards each other.

    Sure there was rudeness about, but it seems to me to have been so unusual that it stuck out like a sore thumb and gained the abuser, wide spread disapproval.

    It’s that loss of a sense of manners and civility that I miss. Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but being consistently told as a Child and young adult that “manners cost nothing” seems to have rubbed off on me.

    As for voting. Civic duty has been part of my life since my earliest days in the Army, where it was explained to us that while we were soldiers, we were also citizens and had a duty to take part in civil life wherever we were. Something which stickss with you, becomes habitual. Perhaps we need to teach this as part of the National Curriculum, as an essential part of the citizenship modules.

  3. I so agree about voting being an obligation, and about voting for the common good rather than personal good. Of course, people may differ about what constitutes the common good …….
    Happy Election Day!

  4. Sometimes I think that this generation of teenagers and young adults are exceptionally polite and only one or two let them down. The middle aged can be a different pan of fish and the elderly can lose their inhibition. Although I know some very sweet elderly people who would probably need a pacemaker if they used the Internet and saw how brash and rude people can be with one another. On the other hand, since the invent of the Internet, people have made friends through being nice to one another, sometimes from the other end of the world.

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