This I Know: Civility

American asks four wonks to weigh in on a single topic

Illustra­tion by
Traci Daberko

illustrations related to civility

Jheanelle Wilkins, Washington Semester Program '08 SPA/MPA '11

Civility is rooted in recognizing each other's humanity. We have work to do in our country—when white supremacists are praised by the president of the United States while protesters are demonized; when unarmed black people are killed with little consequence; when our Muslim brothers and sisters are targeted and banned; when health care access is constantly under siege; when people who are desperately in need of disaster relief and support are berated instead of helped; when undocumented youth are prevented from pursuing their dreams; when the nation is reeling from another heartbreaking mass shooting. 

Though these issues and decisions have caused national division, we are a country that values recognizing the humanity of every person, exercising compassion, and treating people with dignity. Hundreds of thousands of people have come together to resist hate, speak love, and practice civility. We have work to do in our country and it starts with all of us. It is imperative that all of us—especially public servants—act with these convictions that are at the core of our humanity.

Wilkins represents District 20 in the Maryland House of Delegates. 

Carl Luna, SPA/PhD '88

"Civility" comes from the Latin cives: the citizens, the people. Civility brings the many together into the civitas: the community of the people. It's the process of turning the many into the community. Civility is civilization—the foundation of democracy and the social contract. It's resolving to respect each other's rights. Civility is e pluribus unum: out of many we are one people, one civilization. That which unifies us is civil. That which divides us is not. 

Civility is not simply "politeness." Antebellum polite gentility was the mask for the most uncivil of abominations—slavery. Civility is not advancing one's own rights and interests at the expense of other people's rights and interests. It's not excluding others from our community. Civility is not separating ourselves into us versus them.

Civility is speaking truth to power. It's calling out and redressing ugly truths of inequity and injustice that divide us and which "polite" society might wish to avoid. Civility is multitudinis coram se—community before self. Individually we have rights. Together we are invincible.

Luna is director of the Institute for Civic Civil Engagement at the University of San Diego.

Susan Schwartz, SOC/BA '93

As a certified divorce coach, I often say to my clients, "You are about to face one of the toughest journeys of your life. You started out with a person that you loved. Now you will have to divide property, money, and even a time-sharing schedule for your children with someone you no longer love and who no longer loves you." It sounds harsh, but divorce is brutal—it truly knows no civility.

That's what inspired me to become a certified divorce coach. I want to have my clients' backs when they are too wrapped up in the divorce process to look out for themselves. 

So how does that translate into civility? It starts with treating yourself with kindness and cutting yourself some slack during this incredibly difficult time. Doing so will have a direct impact on who you are during and after your divorce. After all, how can we possibly model civility for our children, our friends, and the world if we don't first start with ourselves? During a divorce, everyone tends to be so busy fighting for their futures that they often forget to look out for themselves.

Schwartz is a certified divorce coach and principal at Living Well Coaching. 

Michelle Pappas, SPA/BA '90

Civility is being pushed to the limits—in our homes, school, and workplace; on television and the Internet; and in the news. Why is civility lacking today? Is technology partially to blame? 

Many of the adults in our lives used to practice polite, respectful behavior. They gave us rules and modeled them through phone calls, smiles, handshakes, eye contact, and handwritten thank you notes. Our lives centered on conversations and engagement around the dinner table. Emotions were real—not demonstrated through emojis. Civility and etiquette were expected, part of the daily routine.  

Today, we depend on instant gratification—texts, social media, Apple Pay, Venmo, online banking. Technological savvy has replaced interpersonal skills. We have chosen to "tune out" and to communicate silently, rather than engage with others. After all, why should we risk an awkward encounter with a stranger?

Perhaps we can start by making a personal commitment to share a friendly smile or say hello to the first person we encounter today.

Pappas is founder and executive director of Potomac Protocol and Etiquette.