By Curtis R. Joseph, Jr.
In 1954, Nobel Prize-winning author William Golding, published his highly regarded novel, Lord of the Flies. The story is set against the backdrop of an unspecified war and chronicles the plight of a marooned group of British schoolboys, who must establish a framework of governance to survive on an isolated, remote island in the Pacific Ocean. Free from adult supervision, the boys initially bask in their freedom; however, the group soon splits into two factions—one seeking to adhere to the discipline and order that had been instilled within them by society, and the other opting to pursue basic instinct and impulse.
In many respects, the novel is a microcosm of our society. By that, it examines the conflicting human impulses of civilization on the one hand and the will to power on the other. Essentially, one group of boys chose to be civilized (i.e., polite, well- mannered and conscientious), but the other group gave vent to their more savage nature. By today’s meaning, the term “savage” has developed an association that means awesome or fierce. However, historically, when someone or something was described as being savage, the intent was a derogatory one typically used by someone from “civilized” society.
In terms of word roots, our modern-day concept of civility comes from the word civilis which, in Latin, means “becoming a citizen”. Essentially, this concept assumes that there is something about us that requires elevation and, as such, it tends to suggest that earning the status of a “citizen” is necessarily a work in progress.
To that point, when an immigrant goes through the naturalization process, they are advised of their rights (i.e., voting, serving on a jury, the right to a fair and speedy trial, freedom of expression, freedom to worship how you wish (or, to refrain from worshiping), and the freedom to register for Selective Services to defend the country, to name a few). They are also advised of their responsibilities (i.e., to support and defend the Constitution, to participate in the democratic process, to respect and obey federal, state and local laws, to pay your taxes, to stay informed on issues that affect your community and your country, and to respect the rights, beliefs and opinions of others).
Along those same lines, the early Greeks believed that civility was both a private virtue and a public necessity, which functioned to hold the state together. In other words, civility amounted to respect. And in addition to the rights associated with citizenship, one became obligated to take on responsibility to the public…responsibility to the whole.
Interestingly enough, many religions also teach that we are essentially born in need of reformation. Which begs the age-old question…is mankind, in its natural state, born either “good” or evil”? I doubt that we will ever get a conclusive answer to that question. Certainly, we’d be hard pressed to obtain verification one way or the other. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that our ordered society is dependent upon our ability to coexist. This can only be accomplished if we treat one another with respect.
Evidence points to the fact that our civic bonds are becoming more and more strained by an overall decline in civility. Look no further than the typical day-to-day exchanges between every day, ordinary people. The ability to disagree without being disagreeable is a lost art. Disagreements devolve immediately into name calling, followed by threats of violence. We see this behavior modeled by our so-called leaders and, unfortunately, parroted by our young.
But there is guidance for us in the Golden Rule—“in everything, do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” Crystal clear in its simplicity, the Golden Rule is the common thread that runs through most, if not all, cultures and organized religions. This time-tested maxim sets forth an agreement that assumes a two-way street which places the burden, first, upon us.
I am reminded of the Saturday morning cartoons that presented the hero at a crossroads, faced with a dilemma. There he stands, with an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. In this scenario, the angel represents civility, and the devil represents civility’s alternative. We’re faced with such choices all day, every day. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, let’s make a habit of yielding to the better angels of our nature. Our society hangs in the balance.