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.