It all goes back to ancient Rome. It was the first real city of the Western world; it’s been a city for twenty-eight centuries. In the early days of Rome, its citizens were known as cives. To be a citizen of Rome was a big deal. A huge deal. An absolutely massive deal. Being a Roman citizen meant you had civitas — you belonged to collective body of all citizens, you were an integral part of the social contract that bound all cives together.

Being a citizen conferred both rights and responsibilities on a person, and one of those responsibilities was to be civil — to behave in public life in a manner befitting of a Roman citizen so as to maintain civic order. As the Roman empire stretched out across Europe, it spread the idea of civitas — a process by which other peoples in other lands were civilized. Important people in ‘client’ states could become civitas sine suffragio, citizens of Rome (lacking only the right to vote). It was said a Roman citizen could walk across the face of the known world without any fear of molestation, shielded by the words Civis Romanis — “I am a citizen of Rome.”

It was largely bullshit, of course. The Roman army was full of murderous bastards who engaged in all manner of appalling war crimes. Roman politicians were as greedy and corrupt as any. Those ‘client’ states undergoing ‘civilization’ all began as conquered nations. The glory of Rome came at the expense of subjugated people.

But the concept of civitas was, and still is, important. The concept helps make the world a better place — a place where people treated each other decently, with respect and courtesy, with civility. That’s a fine thing.

Today, a member of the Trump administration can’t walk the face of the known world without molestation; they can’t even order a meal in a decent restaurant without being harassed. A lot of folks today are decrying this lack of civility. They’re right to do so.

But they need to remember that civility — that civitas — is a social contract that begins at the top of the social food chain. Civitas confers rights on its citizens, but it also burdens them with certain social responsibilities.

This is really pretty simple. If you belong to a political administration that enforces cruel policies on its people, a political administration that routinely lies to the people about matters large and small, that protects and enriches the powerful at the expense of the weak, then you’ve violated the concept of civility and you aren’t worthy of its protection.

If Sarah Huckabee Sanders wants to be treated with civility, then she has a moral duty to treat others with civility. That’s the contract. Civility has to work both ways.

6 thoughts on “civility

    • Well, yes and no. There are some folks who, I think, deserve initial respect simply because of the social position they occupy — until they demonstrate they don’t deserve it. I tend to automatically respect nurses, for example, and librarians.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. You’ve given me much to think about; I’m torn on this issue. Half the time I want to tell the opposition to be the bigger party, the other half of the time I want to say that the orange idiot has given incivility free rein, so bombs away. Looking for the middle ground, and maybe a bit of guidance, on this one, Greg…


    • We can always find some middle ground — but the problem is we’re not talking about middle ground between reasonable people. We’re talking about middle ground between reasonable people and extremists, which isn’t actually ‘middle’ ground at all; it’s moderate conservative ground. By occupying middle ground, we’ve allowed conservatism to become more extreme.

      I read a recent article in The New Yorker that included this: We don’t want to set a precedent in which politics are so personalized that even simple common coexistence becomes impossible.

      But WE didn’t set that precedent. WE (and by ‘we’ I mean liberals, progressives, moderates, and anybody who isn’t angrily or defensively conservative) have tolerated asymmetrical incivility for a couple of decades. WE have tried to focus on policy over politics, on governance over ideology, and on cooperation over obstruction — and it didn’t move them an inch toward civility.

      THEY, on the other hand, aren’t interested in ‘simple common coexistence.’ They’re interested in winning, whatever that means and whatever that takes.

      I’m uncomfortable with what happened to SHS. But I’m not sure we can afford ‘comfortable’ anymore.

      Liked by 1 person

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