A Lesson Learned at Grandmother’s House

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The word “civility” has been bandied about a lot lately – by media people or politicians who find other people’s behavior or words offensive. Or, I would argue, in an almost foolproof tactic to swing the weight of moral authority back to themselves when the pendulum has swung toward the giver of the offense.

So, what does “civility” mean anyway? Some synonyms from my online thesaurus are: politeness, courtesy, respect, tact, and my personal favorite: niceness.

Little-Red-Riding-HoodWhen people call for a return to civility, they appear to be calling for a return to niceness as an objective good in itself.

But is civility itself good? Isn’t it just a matter of taste? Isn’t the accuracy of the words, their helpfulness, even their intent more important than the form in which they’re expressed? Wouldn’t it be better to hear words spoken that are true, even if they’re not nice, even if they sound rude and make us squirm, and even if they hurt our feelings? I’m asking a lot of questions in this paragraph, but here’s my answer in the last sentence: I for one, would rather hear a hard truth than believe a lie because it’s nicer.

In “Into the Woods” a Stephen Sondheim musical, Little Red Riding Hood is saved from the Big Bad Wolf and she sings:

And I know things now, many valuable things,
That I hadn’t known before.
Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood.
They will not protect you the way that they should.
And take extra care with strangers, even flowers have their dangers,
And though scary is exciting,
Nice is different than good.

…Nice is different than good. That’s my favorite line from the entire musical – which is very good by the way.

So let’s have a return to civility if we must. Let’s be polite, and even well-dressed and well-groomed while we’re at it. But all that is surface stuff.

Let’s make Truth the goal – for a change. Even if it costs us.

4 Comments
  1. Gabriel Constans says

    Keen observations and questions about civility, our interpretation of such and how it can be used for good or bad. In my experience it is not a question of whether we tell someone or hear, the “truth”, but how it is conveyed. People can hear most any truth, if it is conveyed with compassion and understanding. If someone’s underlying intention is “to be right” or “convince” or “prove” something to another, than that deeper intention is conveyed in tone, body language and expression. It’s not what you say, but how you say it.

    Would suggest removing the line, “I’m asking a lot of questions in this paragraph, but here’s my answer in the last sentence:”, as it is telling the reader what you have already said and are about to say.

  2. Jack Eason says

    The way you look, or dress, does not necessarily denote who you are. The world I grew up in where courtesy, civility, good manners and respect for your elders, has sadly all but disappeared.

    Whenever I see a smartly dressed individual on the television like a politician, business mogul, or a lawyer on television spouting their various opinions, alarm bells go off with me.

    Of all the people in this world they are the ones who have totally abandoned any form of ‘civility’ in favour of lying, cheating, backstabbing and slandering to get where they are.

    I still believe that we all need to actively promote civility and good manners. 🙂

  3. J.I. Kendall says

    Thanks to you, Jack and Gabriel, for your thoughtful and constructive comments.

  4. Patty Wiseman says

    Ah! Let’s tell the truth…nicely! Good article.

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