Wednesday, January 12, 2011


I've used the term "civility" for many years but it has new meaning today. It has new meaning as a result of many of my experiences in Qatar as well as the tragedy that occurred in Arizona. President Obama's remarks, concluding with "Have we shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to people in our lives?" pretty much makes the case. Although no one wishes for tragedy, it is amazing how we are sometimes brought to deeper understanding after being shocked by the impact of the exaggeration of behaviors we observe on a regular basis. Does divisive rhetoric (incivility) potentially lead to such things as the Arizona shootings? Does disrespect (incivility) shown to others in our daily interactions drive wedges between us in ways that prohibit progress toward a more peaceful, compassionate, and prosperous world?

Unfortunately, some of my recent experiences in Qatar have demonstrated impatience, intolerance, and disrespect. Not from Qatari nationals but from visiting expatriate workers. As the media is now portraying (after granting Qatar the 2022 World Cup), Qatar is an amazing country with grand aspirations and a breath-taking pace of change. The kind of change underway here is more rapid and profound than almost any in history. And, this pace of change has bumps - mistakes, miscalculations, and times when the systems are not ready to match the challenge. I've grown to understand my role, when things don't work quite as I would have liked, as being one of appreciating the work that was done, respectfully critiquing for the sake of improvement, and doing what I can to take care of my own responsibilities. There are sometimes those who, instead of demonstrating appreciation and respect, choose to acuse, criticize, and worst of all, generalize from one experience to another indiscriminately.

Burgess and Burgess' (1997) essay on "The Meaning of Civility" proposed that understanding civility in conventional ways (i.e. being polite or courteous) has severe limitations in the diverse global community in which we live. Instead, they propose a number of methods to resolve difference. They say that true civility today, "entails an obligation to seriously consider the persuasive arguments made by opponents and to carefully try to explain and justify one's own position to one's opponents and others." Civility is two way - expressing respect and appreciation and stating one's own position in ways that does not denigrate, attribute ill-purpose, or diminish the value of others' views. More importantly, being civil is to express oneself in ways that does not devalue the other person.

Whether it is a stereotyping joke about the "other." Whether it is criticism that questions the purpose of the "other." Whether it is silencing (through whatever means) the voices of those with whom we disagree. These are all forms of incivility and, in all likelihood, they form a continuum of incivility that escalates as the rhetoric becomes more strident. There are lots of reasons why we, as human beings, might disagree with others - politics, culture, religion, socioeconomics... and these forms of difference are only increasing. The question is if we can find another way of demonstrating civility that leads to respect of difference, pleasure in our interactions, and improved conditions for all rather than accusation and marginalization that leaves us standing alone in frightened defense of our own sacred views?

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