Civility is most simply defined as politeness in behavior or speech. That doesn’t seem too complicated, does it? Yet, philosophers and great thinkers have been discussing its importance and apparent elusiveness in human society for ages. Certainly in the past few months we’ve seen more and more examples of grossly uncivilized behavior.
In addressing the topic of civility, one takes the risk of seeming to view oneself as superior. Cicero said that when he condemned vices, he first of all condemned his own. While truly hesitant, I’m confessing here a personal story that unfortunately illustrates my own lesson in civility.
Several years ago, our family visited Washington, D.C. while my daughter was studying at Georgetown University. The highlight of our trip was an elegant evening at the beautiful John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
As we waited for Porgy and Bess to begin, we couldn’t help but overhear a man in front of us regaling his companion (and everyone near him) with his vast knowledge of the opera. When he took a breath from the notes he had surely taken from Wikipedia earlier that day, he pompously made disparaging remarks about several people sitting near us.
When the opening song (aria) began, and the words (libretto) appeared above the stage, I leaned over to my husband and jokingly whispered, “Oh, good, it’s a sing-along!” Perhaps the glass of wine I’d enjoyed at dinner caused me to say this a bit louder than I had intended. OperaMan spun around and hissed, “Would you please, shut up!”
Here’s where it gets truly low-brow, folks. I muttered, not so much under my breath, “What an ____.” You may fill in the blank with a word that rhymes with crass. OperaMan, who clearly had better manners than I, said nothing.
The rest of the evening I sat embarrassed and ashamed, unable to enjoy what was probably one of the finest cultural experiences of my lifetime. I could only imagine that OperaMan was thinking my family and I were tourists from the Midwest who had never been to an opera or The Kennedy Center. He, of course, would have been correct.
I can’t think back on that evening without feeling slightly nauseous and very disappointed in myself. Not only did I disrespect OperaMan, I forfeited my own enjoyment and self-respect. Maybe he was an uppity snob. Maybe he was on a first date and so nervous that he was off his game. You see, it doesn’t matter. I had no control over his behavior. I only had control over my own.
I share this story to show I understand how easy it is to descend into bad behavior, how awful it feels when you don’t live up to your own standards, and that being civil takes practice. And, finally, to note that there is a very good possibility it’s really hard to be civil in Washington, D.C.
“Practice civility toward one another. Admire and emulate ethical behavior wherever you find it. Apply a rigid standard of morality to your lives; and if, periodically, you fail, as you surely will, adjust your lives, not your standards.” ~Ted Koppel
Think On These Things ~ Alicia