Leigh Waltz, MFA
The extent of our awareness and practice of civility defines us internally and externally. At sixteen, George Washington copied 110 “rules of civility” as a penmanship exercise.(1) Later, he was known as “He-burns-the-towns” to the Iroquois.(2) George also rode hundreds of miles, in the twilight of his life to evict white settlers from his 50,000 acres of land.
Like religion and myth, civility is a narrative-linked adaptation,(3) a construct, a discovery, a rediscovery. It is a form of yoga.(4) We ought to see it as a form of prayer.(5)
In the winter of 1838, from the north side of the Ohio river, an infamous slave catcher watched a black woman swim and carry her baby north across the half-frozen river. He said to her, “Any woman who does what you just did deserves her freedom.” He then escorted them to the home of a known conductor on the underground railroad.(6)
We relish genuine courtesy or follow the rituals as best we may. We go as far as possible until we let slip the procedure by inattention or abandon it in outrage. Civility is the ancient invention allowing us to get along in hopes of sociability, commerce, or survival. If familiarity breeds contempt, our brief, well-conducted encounters make for happier coexistence. Etiquette saves serenity and lives. Its furtherance preserves the notion of civilization—up to a point. History reminds us the veneer is thin. Offering civility is the first rule of civility. Calmness of mind is the civility we offer ourselves before we can offer it to others. So, it becomes a subtle game, and the last one to quit may feel superior whether enduring a coronation or one’s own beheading.(7) Interestingly, remaining calm, another adaptive rule, allows one greater access to the cerebral cortex thus increasing the likelihood of rational (non-reptilian) thought.
Propriety is feasible in an environment of sufficiency, surplus or balanced power. Frightened, desperate, and over-privileged people may abandon proprieties. We tacitly agree to be civil while we believe power is equal or favors someone else. We would rather it were not about power, but it usually is. We’ll be polite because we have to—public opinion is the most powerful mechanism of social control—but even that has its bounds. “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”(8) People can also ape civility until their patience runs out. There are many things to consider in crossing the gulf between, “It’s nice to meet you,” and “I’m going to kill you.” Author Michael Carden puts it succinctly: “The discourse of othering is the discourse of murder.”(9)
Civility is a form of sanity.
Maxine Waters inspired Thomas Sugrue to write his opinion piece.(10) People are crossing boundaries. Though appropriate in its content, the title need not have included “white.” All people would generally avoid activism and watch leaders from a safe distance, especially as Facebook is about as real as people can get anymore. Then we hit limits. When Micah Xavier Johnson decided to kill five police officers and injure nine others in Dallas,(11) it was a predictable response to so many cases of police murdering black Americans. The courts acquitted the cops, time and again, no matter how egregious the killings. Civil discourse? Does Amy Vanderbilt’s Book of Etiquette permit shooting back? Who gives permission to return fire? The self-preserving self.
Wealth’s ennui seems to have created a form of policing— an effort to control or cancel that Chait’s article(12) covers reasonably well. Microaggressions are the concerns of people not being shot at who have plenty to eat. Political correctness seems less about being considerate and more about being offended on behalf of someone else. Tiptoe and don’t talk. We get to control folks or cancel them—especially old people. This is the opposite of what traditional native cultures generally do, namely, they remind and remind: we have to respect and listen to the elders. That awareness has ancient roots and is closely associated with long-term survival.
Uncivil language tends to polarize and offend, and it opens the door for abuse, demonization, or violence. (Domestic violence is always preceded by verbal abuse.) But the people believing their feelings matter more than the rituals of civility or near civility misunderstand the game and its function. In the past, subtle and not-so-subtle slights were skirmishes to discover another’s awareness, training, resolve, limits, and self-respect. Without license to explore, the over-delicate are lonelier, irrelevant or both. This writing is not to advocate nastiness, but it seems the anti-bullying vogue merely helps real bullies later. Some believe children should be taught to defend themselves—subtly and overtly.
In our collective journey from hunter-gatherer to post-industrial dot com, we passed from local to global. We passed from engaged, caring community to big business. In that journey we also went, generally speaking, from sharing food out of necessity to avoiding people out of selfishness. Drifting apart (or what many prefer to see as “freedom”) has influenced everything. Zombies are a meme and a symbol of civility USA. A person is more likely to participate in a Facebook group than actually talk to their neighbor. So polarized and isolated are we that someone like David French can write a “very 2018” article(13) (pre-Mueller report release and pre-impeachment 1.0) that is as well-intended as it is breathtakingly naïve. Volcano America rumbled up long ago but now it is active. Duh. Anyone claiming, “There is no limiting principle on leftist fury,” was not listening to Trump’s 2016 RNC acceptance speech. Such types are deaf to dog whistles and ignorant of any implications of the president’s remarks in the wake of the fatal, Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville (Aug 12th, 2017, well before French’s article!). Or do they hear and welcome them? Couple that with nearly all the right-wing giving cover to a nasty, loud-mouthed, scofflaw, give-anyone-a-security-clearance commander-in-chief who is consistently at odds with all intelligence agencies for an I-love-Russia-no-matter-what presidency that yielded 100 criminal charges and six guilty pleas (14) and unwittingly had an unregistered foreign agent as a National Security Advisor before Mr. French’s wrote his article! The only way to have more chaos in the White House is to invite it. Mr. French wouldn’t notice a clown-car “cluster-f” if he were in one. He is. We all are.
The racist over-reaction to the Obama presidency may necessitate another “last battle of the revolution.”(15) The slave-owner who wrote “all men are created equal,” anticipated the bloodletting necessary, and “trembled” contemplating how to right the wrong of slavery: “The almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest [regarding slavery] …”(16)
Isaac Chotiner’s article(17) makes known peacemaker Paula Green (though it could mention the Karuna Center) and shares with New Yorker readers how close to “powder keg” the situation in the US has become. Chotiner seems done with civility. Green seems to be the civility standard bearer. The author edited and condensed for clarity, but the piece fails to convey urgency about her activism. Chotiner should include her PR efforts and even invite others to cover her work. As is, it reads like a classified mission brief and few of the people who need it will get a chance to read it. Yes, as Green says, we are still fighting the Civil War.
What Green says once, Carol Anderson applies many times and with a trowel. Her book, White Rage makes it abundantly clear: we’re still in the Civil War. Her case-law savvy record of institutionalized and crypto-racism highlights the dire need to counter disenfranchisement to achieve anything closer to real democracy in the United States. At the same time, her presentation of Lincoln ignores his conservative, legalistic view of property and federal power and she seems not to appreciate the history of his presidency or the frightening lack of Union success prior to the battle of Antietam. Does she know that Quakers and other abolitionists met with Lincoln in the White House and pressured him to accomplish through federal fiat what two of his brigadiers had already done in the field?(18) Most importantly, Anderson needs to know: On the banks of the Rappahannock River in December, 1862, in a very Valley Forge-like setting, federal troops read, knew of and discussed the controversial Emancipation Proclamation that the president had finally sign ed.(19) There were some racist soldiers who deserted saying they had not enlisted to free the slaves. There were thousands of others though, who understood real civility and the stakes for the republic. A Union corporal wrote this letter just before he fought in the battle of Fredericksburg, December 11, 1862:
“This is the first test of a modern free government in the act of sustaining itself against internal enemies and matured rebellion. All men who love free government and equal laws are watching this crisis to see if a republic can sustain itself in such a case [and] if it fails, then the hopes of millions fall and the designs and wishes of all tyrants will succeed the old cry will be sent forth from the aristocrats of Europe that such is the common end of all republics. The blatant croakers of the divine right of kings will shout forth their joy . . . . it becomes the duty of every one no matter what his position to do all in his power to sustain for the present and to perpetuate for the benefit [of] future generations a government and a national asylum which is superior to any the world has yet known.”(20)
Crossing another wintery river, under enemy fire, were thousands of informed, undaunted, idealistic, federal troops about to fight another bloody Civil War battle.(21)
White Rage stands at the breaking point of civility or past it. President Kennedy said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” It seems profound unless one has read enough history, from the Roman slave revolt under Spartacus to North American slave revolts under Nat Turner or aboard the ships Amistad or Creole. Human consciousness appears to need to resist or exploit exploitation in whatever form it may take. Even the avoidance of conflict and the prevention of conflict is simply another form of conflict. The cyclical nature of civility amnesia is why Orwell envisioned a boot stamping on a human face forever as a picture of the human condition.(22) Our Constitution must tend the other way.
Absent training and refresher training, people discover or reinvent civility independently. The gambit of offering politeness as a form of hoped-for amity is transcultural, ancient, and reinforced by stories of visiting strangers being gods or angels, etc. It is hard to distinguish between caution and deference, attentiveness, and surveillance. Marriage builds empires and brinksmanship in civility led to the invention of espionage.
People begin to relate to each other based on what they see— their bodies and their clothing. For the most part, clothing is completely connected to status (real or desired) and our bodies are only tenuously connected to status in the reflection of the quality of our hygiene and health maintenance.(23) Since we watch ourselves and others grow old and die, a larger truth is inferred from our impermanence. The ones caught up in attachment, the ones who identify more with their bodies (plastic surgery, hair implants) and less with spirit, these are closer to fear and illusion and these are distracted from larger truths.
Thoughtful people begin to relate to each other based on what they believe. If a thinker identifies with people (truly with all creatures), that is, realizes that people are generally confused, frightened “soul houses” that are basically all the same, and if that thinker chooses to empathize with rather than prey upon his or her fellow creatures, such a one is less likely to regard the race or ethnicity of another as a reason to be afraid, much less to do harm. The connection experienced in deep meditation tends toward universal love. For this reason, the spiritual aspirants of all traditions generally reject violence in as many forms as can be noticed (gross and subtle). “What is there is also here and what is here is also there,” is from the oldest scripture on the planet (24) and such relational identifying is foundational to civility.
People have experiences and draw conclusions. Some unfortunates have experiences that offer only pain and fear-inducing conclusions (and this may begin a cycle). Some are more “fortunate” and have other experiences. Such people often “lose their innocence” later. The most fortunate ones use understanding and discernment to draw caring conclusions from uncaring confusion. This has to do with using forgiveness, “looking for the helpers” (25) and consciously allying oneself with the good. The most fortunate exhaust themselves with the limited possibilities of hate and intuit or discover painfully that truth/love (agape) is the surest footing for spiritual progress. (26) Sharing from that knowledge is what Christians call “prophetic witness.”
Etiquette, or at least kindness, is tough but not impossible to apply in dire straits. Alas, eventual desperation, loud or quiet, is the hand dealt everyone. (27) Mindfulness or conscious presence is what is actually sought. In our patience we possess our souls. (28) Regular meditation (calming the mind, getting centered, “practicing relaxing”) often and in groups will cultivate the state that yields all other fruits we care about in human coexistence.
A society manifests the messages it sends itself. We want positive propaganda, but we no longer can agree on what that is. Failing to cohere, a society disintegrates.
The nearsightedness that renders adherents of one faith unable to see the commonality with another is paradoxically widespread. Nearly all faiths contain the same welcoming, inclusive, and loving intent. “People like us are the best” is the engine powering racial or ethnic divides. Fundamentalists from different religions are cut from the same cloth. They think they are different. Significantly, the Hindu counterpart of the New Testament is a conversation between a very reluctant warrior and a warrior-man-god who explains why the warrior must fight. (29) It has to do with life on life’s terms—the almost necessary illusion and suffering on the material plane—being willing to live in the face of relentless ignorance and incivility.
An addict’s attachment to the mirage of uniqueness, the false perception of being unlike and separate from all others is what drags the addict to the gates of insanity and death. Addiction takes many forms. The perception of separateness is insanity and death. Almost literally, awake means alive, and asleep means dead. Civility-as-sanity is a timeless, transcultural teaching that is sacred. Because we tend not to remind ourselves, we make ourselves able to forget. The careless do not foil the careful— those who are awake. Civility is a discipline maintaining an awakened state. Living into that discipline is prophetic witness.
3. The guiding stories are imagined and built and rebuilt in the retelling for a useful purpose.
4. From a Sanskrit word for “connection,” yug, yoga is also related to the word “yoke” as in the connection of oxen to a cart. The connection resulting from the discipline is to one’s consciousness, the cosmos, God, etc.
5. Edgar Cayce said, “If we act according to our highest ideals, we will see the hand of God more often in our lives.” The palms together gesture accompanied by saying namaste or namaskar is actually “I greet the divine within you.” Perhaps it is related to the hand-covered fist greeting of China and the palm-to-fist “salute” of Shao Lin monks. The latter indicates, “What follows is for training. Do not be alarmed.”
6. From Ann Hagedorn’s Beyond the River: The Untold Stories of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2004). Slave catcher Chance Shaw reportedly watched the escaped woman walk from ice floe to ice floe. She fell in and struggled back onto ice three times in her crossing! This is the account of Eliza Harris, brought by Chance Shaw to the home of Rev. John Rankin, who then conveyed Eliza and her child to Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin, who then arranged their transportation to Canada. This account, long known in and around Ripley, Ohio, and published by Coffin in his autobiography, became the basis of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Eliza character in her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Slave catching was highly lucrative, and Shaw’s act was effectively giving up the equivalent of half a year’s wages for a skilled laborer.
7. Moments before her execution, Ann Boleyn reportedly paid and forgave the swordsman.
8. Frederick Douglass said this is his speech at Canandaigua, New York, August 3, 1857. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/1857-frederick-douglass-if-there-no-struggle-there-no-progress/
9. Carden says this in his essay, “Joshua” in The Queer Bible Commentary, SCM Press, 2006.
11. July 7, 2016. https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/dallas-police-ambush/dallas-shooter-micah-xavier-johnson-was-army-veteran-n606101
12 12 https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2015/01/not-a-very-pc-thing-to-say.html
14. As of February 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/23/us/politics/mueller-investigation-charges.html
15. This was a phrase used in the early 19th century to refer to the War of 1812. Significantly, it was used in the portrayal of John Quincy Adams (“Old man eloquent”) in the Speilberg film, Amistad, during Adams’ arguments before the US Supreme Court to refer to the Civil War: “…And if it be the last battle of the revolution, let it come.” However, no such sentence was spoken by Adams in that case. The American Experiment continues. See:
16. Thomas Jefferson. This is an amazing website for anyone wishing to read some of Jefferson’s pages. http://www.masshist.org/thomasjeffersonpapers/notes/nsvviewer.php?page=98&nav=query&q=18&results=0page
18. Generals Fremont and Butler had issued orders (prior to July 1862 and congruent with Congress’s Confiscation Act) that rebel property would be confiscated or destroyed if it clearly supported the rebellion. Lincoln, trying to appease the slave-holding border states prevaricated as long as possible. That July was also when Lincoln first discussed the proclamation with his cabinet. September 1862 was the preliminary release of the unsigned Emancipation Proclamation. He signed the Emancipation Proclamation January 1, 1863.
19. It had been in public discussion for four months.
20. Corporal Peter Welsh of the Irish Brigade (28th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment), ethnically Irish but Canadian born, enlisted in Boston, where he might have seen signs reading, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs.” https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/fredericksburg-0
21. Nearly twenty thousand people died in four days of fighting. Involving house-to-house fighting, it was the US Army’s first experience of urban warfare. It was a terrible loss for the Union.
22. O’Brien to Winston in Orwell’s book, 1984.
23. This is one of the reasons for permanent body marking among indigenous cultures—adornment, tattoos and ritual scarification also raise status.
24. The Vedas.
25. Fred Rogers, or “Mr. Rogers,” heard his mother tell him on more than one occasion of despair: “Look for the helpers.” One can view being “a helper” as Bhakti yoga, mere civility or the second coming of Christ.
26. “Hate never dispels hate. Only love dispels hate. This is law, ancient and inexhaustible.” This is a teaching of the Buddha, Dhammapada, verse 5.
27. Religions in general are the resource for salvation. It its discussion of salvation, Encyclopedia Britannica says,
“The idea of saving or delivering from some dire situation logically implies that humankind, as a whole or in part, is in such a situation.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/salvation-religion
28. Luke 21:19 KJV: In your patience possess ye your souls.
29. This refers to The Bhagavad Gita (Song of God or Celestial Song) of the Hindus.