On Being Civilized
When we were little, our parents demanded that we be civilized. We understood that to mean that we were not to fight with our siblings, that we were not to play with our food, that we were not to discuss the private parts of Greek sculptures in museums, and we were not to walk around in public with our underwear on our heads.
As we grew older, being civilized became more demanding. We began to realize that being civilized is not just a matter of not being uncivilized. Being civilized imposes positive obligations too. Being civilized in the twenty-first century demands that have a broad understanding of who we are in the world, of who else shares the world with us, of how we can live together to make all of our lives more colorful and fulfilling.
Being civilzed does not require that we be passive. Each of us has principles that we have developed over the years, and we should defend them with passion. But also with reason, and at the same time treating the other side with dignity. "Your argument lacks a foundation" rather than "you are an idiot spouting nonsense. And you are ugly too." Of course that means we had to develop our positions on things, instead of using word bombs that are satisfying but imprecise. It is hard work being civilized, even if you are a lawyer. Or a politician. Listen to Oscar Wilde: "If one could only teach the English how to talk, and the Irish how to listen, life here would be quite civilized." Just substitute yourself for one of those nationalities, and your adversary for the other. The point becomes clear.
Our country is not at its most civilized today, but there is no-one but us to blame. Each of us is responsible for our own behavior, and each of us contributes to the civilization of our nation. We don't really think our goals are advanced by being rude, even to people who are behaving badly, and even if they seem immune to reason. But we do need to speak out where behavior falls below the standards we have set for ourselves--as women, as parents, as children, as citizens.
We rather like this updated expression of our parents' message: when they go low we go high. That's civilized.