When politicians and pundits call for more civility in public life, what, precisely, are they calling for? Do they simply want people to be nicer to one another, or do they want something more substantial?
After all, being nice is not the same as being good. And even though we stress to children the importance of being nice, it’s but the first step toward mature ethical behavior, not the final one.
Preschool teachers know that one of the first things children need to learn is how to use words to settle disputes. At first, they need to learn what words to use; later, once they’ve learned the words, they need to be reminded to use them. It’s not unusual to hear a teacher on the playground, in an effort to turn aside a confrontation, say something like: “Emma, use your words.”
Adults also need reminding, not only about what words to use, but how and when to use them. That’s because words are the principle means by which we give shape and meaning to our lives. To refuse to speak to another, or to use words only to bully, disparage, coerce or manipulate, is to treat others as less than human, as not worthy of full participation in the human community.
The word “conversation” still carries in its origins the remnants of this rich meaning. It comes from two Latin words, con (“together”) and vertere (“to turn”), and it suggests that the ways in which we speak to one another are what bring us together. But it also implies that words may be used to drive us apart. It is significant that the Latin word for sin was aversio, literally, “to turn away.”
For most of its history, the word “conversation” referred to something like “a way of life.” It would be used to describe someone whose words and actions expressed peace and integrity, an attitude of getting along with others. Paintings by Dutch artists Vermeer and Ter Borch were called “conversation pieces,” not because they provided something to talk about, but because they depicted a way of life characterized by domestic tranquility.
The King James Version of the Bible, from 1611, translated Philippians 3:20 as “For our conversation is in heaven,” suggesting that heaven is the place where people turn together in peace. There is no other word in the English language that so succinctly expresses the notion that our daily words and actions constitute the very quality of our lives together.
“Civility” is the contemporary word we commonly use to express our desire for peaceful discourse. But it is a poor substitute for “conversation” — it suggests a superficial politeness, for one can keep a civil tongue while harboring deep resentments.
Discourse that seems uncivil may in fact be constructive. Healthy disagreements are the very lifeblood of a family, or an organization, or a community. Disagreements can reveal passionate commitments to an idea or a cause.
Apathetic civility is not a desirable condition, but healthy disagreement is. In healthy disagreement, people take turns pointing out errors of thought in order that both sides may reach a shared understanding.
Though both divisive speech and argumentative speech may look the same on the surface, they are driven by entirely different motivations. While divisive speech uses words to coerce, manipulate or deceive in order to gain some particular outcome, argumentative speech uses criticism in order to correct error or enhance understanding, to get people to a state of agreement.
What is so discouraging about much of our current public discourse is that words are routinely used in ways that undermine community by turning people against one another, but they are rarely used to engage others in serious dialogue about substantive issues. In short, we have too much divisive speech and not enough argumentative speech.
Being civil to one another is important, but it alone does not determine the quality of public discourse. As the character Frank Burn says in an episode of “M*A*S*H,” “It’s nice to be nice — to the nice.” He could have added that it’s better to be good — to everyone.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.