Civility and 'being nice' aren't the same thing

Opinion: Letters To The Editor

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Civility is the bearing or attitude of responsible and engaged citizenship in a democracy. Civility, when practiced in a healthy democracy, doesn't bury real issues — it can expose exploitation or oppression.

Civility means having a well-crafted argument about a public issue, and being capable of communicating the argument, informally or formally, in a way that can be understood by other citizens. It's about being a competent, effective, mature citizen. It includes understanding enough about other peoples' positions, biases, backgrounds, agendas and communication styles in order to get one's own argument across effectively. It also challenges one to listen, to learn from others, and to reshape one's argument when needed.

A "civil" argument, however, can be quite provocative. It can also provide meaning and focus to activism. The argument can be backed by a public demonstration with people marching in support of it. It might make the criticism that a public official is lying about his positions or motives, as long as one has the evidence to prove that claim. Civility can include all of the above, and more.

That's very different from the rants, name-calling, lying, and misrepresentation of others' views that are common in today's political climate. Just this week, we saw the President, who trades in tirades and insults, distorting civility further by blaming others for its disappearance.

But let's not confuse civility with being "nice." Being nice might reflect one's genuine affection or admiration for another, or it can provide a veneer masking a power play or hidden agenda. Sometimes civility can also be nice, but civility doesn't depend on being nice.

As far as justice is concerned, in a democracy you don't in the end get justice without civility. Without civility, you get what we have today: rants, name-calling, and insults met by more rants, name-calling, and insults … a lot more noise than justice.

Racial justice in our society is lacking. It's true that white privilege can be — and often is — masked by phony niceness and the veneer of politeness. But to suggest, as do some activists, that all white people who advocate civility are merely using it to mask their privilege shows a lack of understanding of civility. 

Moreover, such a simplistic generalization can inspire its own stream of rants and name-calling.

Rich Kordesh

Former Oak Park resident

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