Fostering Trust And Civility Is a Moral Issue

Acclaimed author Stephen Carter on the duty to respect others.

In the sultry summer of 1966, five children settled with some trepidation on the front steps of their new home in northwest Washington, D.C. Their lawyer father had just accepted a job with the federal government, and this was their first venture into a white neighborhood. They had heard many tales. Now passersby on foot and in cars stared wordlessly, and the children felt intuitively that they were not welcome.

"I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here," thought young Stephen Carter.

But suddenly a woman from across the street arrived home from work, stopped, waved, and shouted, "Welcome!" After disappearing into her house, she returned with a plate full of jelly-and-cream-cheese sandwiches, which she carried to their porch to share with the little band of strangers.

This gesture from a woman who knew nothing about them "created a sense of belonging where none existed before." It exemplifies the essence of what "civility" is really about, says the adult Carter, a Yale law professor and passionate writer of books, whose sixth is devoted to the subject. (Previous works such as "Reflections of an Affirmative-Action Baby" and "The Culture of Disbelief" have established Carter as a leading independent thinker on societal concerns.)

Civility, he says, requires that "we express ourselves in ways that demonstrate our respect for others," and that we recognize the need to sacrifice for others, including strangers. This means we should - as the neighbor Sara Kestenbaum did in that racially charged time - show "generosity even when it may be costly, and trust even when there is risk."

Carter's new book, "Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy," comes as surveys show that many are lamenting the loss of civility in American society. From attack politics to abusive language in music, movies, and everyday encounters; from fist fights on talk shows to road rage; from the sexualization of advertising to people acting as though whatever they want is a right, the many facets of incivility seem to heighten the frictions of daily living and further isolate us from one another.

To the tall, gracious father of two, civility is not simply a useful politeness that could help ameliorate those frictions. It is a moral issue that deals with how we view and relate to each other, and will determine the future of our democratic society. It often requires us to put aside our own interests and desires for the benefit of others, he says, which is what civilization is all about. What we need, he argues during a recent visit to Boston, is a "society that recognizes we have a shared obligation to young people for a morally coherent world, a world in which they don't get mixed messages, in which there are some aspects of morality that adults all share and model in their lives."

"And this is a very morally dangerous moment," he adds. "The consequences of not doing this are enormous."

"A lot of kids are growing up without any formal moral instruction; they get it by osmosis in many different places: They watch TV and learn one unhealthy set of values, which may be reinforced by travels on the Internet, reinforced by what they see in politics, by how they see adults behave toward each other. If these are the messages kids are getting, it's hardly surprising that 89 percent of public school teachers say they regularly face abusive language from students.... That's a very scary piece of data."

Language has power. Carter explores in his book the power of words both to heal and to hurt. "Words can wound, .... the way we use words matters," he says.

There is the way fighting words pervade our language, the way we tend to demonize political opponents, the language we use to cut off discussion altogether. And then there is the language of the marketplace that perpetually encourages us to get what we want and do whatever we want.

Carter looks at the history of the concept of civility and its tie to the development of civilization over barbarism, and analyzes the state of values in contemporary America. What too many adults are modeling these days, he says, is self-indulgence, fulfilling the desires of the moment. Marketplace values are taking over the rest of social life. Social institutions that taught us different values are disappearing. "If they vanish, we become a more barbaric society - a well educated, technologically powerful, and militarily mighty one, but a barbaric one, because there is nothing out there teaching us to behave in ways other than grasping for the things of the moment."

The former Stanford University history major has looked to history to find out how significant moral change has occurred in the past. "Historically in America it has been religious appeals that have truly moved people to sacrifice to fight injustice. The only two times in our history we have made genuine, powerful, radically transforming strides toward racial justice have been times of great religious activism - the abolitionist movement and the civil rights movement."

Similarly, he feels now that only a religious understanding of the world can counter the prevailing cultural currents. Religion provides the right language - of love and sacrifice - that are the basis for civility.

"I would like to be able to say that there are other nonreligious institutions that will also have the power to direct our attention to something other than our self-seeking, but I don't know what those are." Liberalism and conservatism are not up to the task, he says.

The family, he says, must be the focal point for moral education, and parents must consciously consider what moral lessons they want their children to learn. "The most important question is, 'What image of civility do our children see in everyday life?'.... It does no good to tell our children, 'Don't say anything behind someone's back that you wouldn't say to their face,' if we do that."

But he realizes the family can't do it alone. Basketball star Charles Barkley "made a strong statement that 'I don't believe kids should look to me as a role model, they should look to their parents.' I don't think kids should look to him either," Carter says, "but a lot do, and he cannot escape his responsibility as a grownup to recognize that how he behaves matters. So many adults would run away from that responsibility - and that is deeply uncivil behavior."

From media moguls to Madison Avenue, the point applies. Yet Carter does not expect results to come just from pleas to TV networks and advertisers. "My own view is that this is something that we will do when we return to God," he says. He is encouraged by the "massive search" many see going on in America. "People are searching for the way to fill 'the hole in the soul,' as my wife calls it. The market can't fill it, our jobs can't fill it - even our friendships, dear though they may be, can't fill it.... And I don't think we will ever recover civility in the sense of this deep and sacrificial concern for others unless we find ways to fill that hole - to deepen our connection to God."

Carter's 'Rules of Civility'

* Our duty to be civil toward others does not depend on whether we like them or not.

* We must sacrifice for strangers, not just for people we happen to know.

* Civility has two parts: generosity, even when it is costly, and trust, even when there is risk.

* Civility creates not merely a negative duty not to do harm, but an affirmative duty to do good.

* Civility requires a commitment to live a common moral life, so we should try to follow the community norms if they are not actually immoral.

* We must come into the presence of our fellow human beings with a sense of awe and gratitude.

* Civility assumes we will disagree; it requires us not to mask our differences, but to resolve them respectfully.

* We must listen to others with knowledge of the possibility that they are right and we are wrong.

* We must express ourselves in ways that demonstrate our respect for others.

* Civility requires resistance to the dominance of social life by the values of the marketplace. [Its] principles should apply in the market and in politics as in every other human activity.

* Civility allows criticism of others, sometimes even requires it, but the criticism should always be civil.

* Civility discourages use of legislation rather than conversation to settle disputes, except as a last resort.

* Teaching civility is an obligation of the family. The state must not interfere with its effort to create a coherent moral universe for its children.

* Civility values diversity, disagreement, and the possibility of resistance, so the state must not use education to try to standardize our children.

* Religions do their greatest service to civility when they preach not only love of neighbor but resistance to wrong.

- From 'Civility: Manners, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy.'

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