One politician hurls invective at another politician, who responds in kind. A leader’s character is trashed, and venomous charges are leveled against him or her. In return, he or she trashes and indicts opponents, and all the while, principles, policies, proposals — what should matter most in choosing our leaders — are cast aside. It never ceases to shock, and you wonder how much lower people can stoop, until, with increasing rapidity, we stoop lower and lower.
And lest we indict only those in the political arena, we also find that in face-to-face encounters, in the media and on the Internet — and there’s nothing quite like anonymity, devoid of the requirement to face the person of whom you speak ill — all kinds of malicious charges and slurs are flung about. In today’s world, there seems to be a trend toward greater and greater disparagement and ugliness toward others.
Yet it need not be so and should not be so, for such behavior portends serious and disastrous consequences for society. Yes, the stakes are high in politics, and the consequences are enormous, but so too are the stakes when individuals and societies become increasingly uncivil toward one another.
According to oxforddictionaries.com, civility is defined as “politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech. It derives from Latin civilitas, from civilis 'relating to citizens.' In early use the term denoted the state of being a citizen and hence (denotes) good citizenship or orderly behavior.” To be civil means that one’s speech and behavior are polite, courteous, gentle and measured.
The definition itself teaches us the consequences of incivility: When we are uncivil, we become harsh, unmerciful, uncaring, poorly performing citizens who, inevitably, will engage in disorderly behavior. We do not need to look far to see this occurring all around us — road rage, physical altercations, physical attacks, and verbal and physical abuse are evident everywhere.
Incivility has the capacity to destroy strong, unified and healthy societies. The reverse is true — harmonious, courteous, safe and civil communities persist by exhibiting respectful, kind and concerned human interaction.
Chinese society has survived for centuries and continues to be influenced by Confucian doctrine. In "The Analects," the revered Chinese philosopher Confucius taught, “In following the Way, the noble-minded treasure three things: a manner free of violence and arrogance, a countenance full of sincerity and trust, a voice free of vulgarity and impropriety.”
Judaism persists under Old Testament dictums. Jewish wisdom explains, “The words of a wise man's mouth are gracious; but the lips of a fool will swallow up himself. The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness: and the end of his talk is mischievous madness” (see Ecclesiastes 10:12-13).
Christian maxims have shaped Western society. In the New Testament, the book of James reveals an unacceptable contradiction, that with words, “bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be” (see James 3:9-10).
The Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu holy book, suggests the mind is “difficult to control, but it can be conquered. There is no need for this weakness (of yours) — it is not worthy of you. He who is not self-restrained will have no steadiness of mind no tranquility — and without tranquility, how can there be happiness?” (see rodneyohebsion.com/hinduism-acow.htm).
How we should behave in word and deed toward others is succinctly stated in Colossians 3:8: “But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth.”
To create and maintain strong, healthy, civil communities, we are taught in the Bible, “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29). According to merriam-webster.com, to edify means to “teach (someone) in a way that improves the mind or character," that uplifts without resorting to coarse, demeaning and derogatory language.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cautioned in a general conference talk in 2014 that in matters of politics, “(Jesus Christ) taught that contention is a tool of the devil. That surely teaches against some of the current language and practices of politics. Living with policy differences is essential to politics, but policy differences need not involve personal attacks that poison the process of government and punish participants. All of us should banish hateful communications and practice civility for differences of opinion.”
In a general conference talk in 2009, when he was the presiding bishop of the LDS Church, Bishop H. David Burton encouraged individuals to embrace “personal traits we call virtues integrity, humility, charity, spirituality, accountability, civility, fidelity, and the list goes on and on. We need only look around us to see what is taking place in our communities to realize that personal traits of virtue are in a steep decline. Civility is all but absent in our political discourse. In abandoning Christian-centered virtues, the consequences may be disastrous. Individual faith and fidelity will diminish. Family solidarity and spirituality will be adversely impacted. Religious influence in society will be lessened, and the rule of law will be challenged and perhaps even set aside. We need to stand tall and be firmly fixed in perpetuating Christlike virtues in our everyday lives.
Incivility foreshadows sharp decline for nations and civilizations. It behooves us as individuals to be civil, to encourage civility and to uphold those who act with civility in wider society.
Kristine Frederickson writes on topics that affect members of the LDS Church worldwide in her column “LDS World." She teaches part time at BYU. Her views do not necessarily represent those of BYU.