Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Choosing civility

Civility is a benevolent attention to others; it's a benevolent form of awareness. We are civil when we are aware of others, and we weave restraint, respect, and consideration into the very fabric of that awareness.

— P.M. Forni
Election day.

The phrase nearly makes me break out in hives.

Don't get me wrong — I'm grateful to live in a time and country where I have a voice. (Not so long ago, women in the U.S. did not. I haven't forgotten.)

But the election process has deteriorated into muckraking and namecalling befitting a schoolyard fight between small children. It's sad and ironic that the civic process is marked by such incivility.

P.M. Forni

Last week, I heard a radio interview of Dr. P.M. Forni, co-founder of The Johns Hopkins Civility Project and author of Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct and The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude.

Dr. Forni was in town to speak at the local community college, and his book Choosing Civility was chosen for their One Book One College effort.

He distinguishes civility from manners:

"We are not talking about which fork to choose for the salad; we are talking about how to treat one another in everyday life, and what's more important than that?"

His words were excellent, and his on-air demeanor was filled with grace.

Grace. A word loaded with meaning and value, especially for the Christian. It speaks of the undeserved kindness of God, which He asks His followers to demonstrate to others who likewise do not deserve it.

Dr. Forni's definition of civility speaks of "benevolent attention to others." Though he may not have been thinking in biblical or theological terms, his message is an important one for people of faith.

Jesus spoke frequently to the topic of how we treat others. When a teacher of the law asked him "Which is the greatest commandment?", the second half of Jesus' two-part answer spoke directly to that topic: love your neighbor as yourself.

As if that's not challenging enough — especially when your neighbor runs his lawnmower at 7 a.m. on Saturday — when Jesus speaks of "neighbor," He's never limiting it to the person in the next house. He's speaking of the outsider. The foreigner. The marginalized. The person who doesn't look like me, smell like me, or worship like me. That's the person I'm supposed to love.

And civility is a good start.

If you'd like to listen to the entire interview with Dr. Forni, you'll find it here. It's well worth 13 minutes of your time.



  1. I hate to always have my mind in the gutter, but "P.M. Forni"? Maybe the guy should spell out his name instead of using the abbrev. Just sayin'.

    But seriously, thanks for the reminder.

    I'd like to open a different can of worms -- a question that I'm sure has been asked by many before: Do you think people should always vote, even if they haven't stay informed about who's who and they're pretty much picking names from a hat?

  2. Too funny... but I'd be lying if I said my mind didn't go the same place. Maybe it's an exercise of our civility that we don't snicker like third-graders when we hear his name? But I'm guessing he'd rather put up with that, than have his first and middle names mispronounced...

    As to your question: that's probably one I should be asking myself about now... before I go cast my ballot.

  3. Oh, and his full name: Pier Massimo Forni.


  4. I always wonder what would happen if someone deliberately chose not to run a smear campaign and just articulated the big idea and the practical steps (however drastic) needed to see change.

    Then I think to myself, what if that person deliberately allowed a smear campaign to gain momentum against him?

    Then I think, well, Jesus wasn't an elected official. And the kingdom of God isn't a democracy. It would never work.


  5. Matt, do you think it's possible to refrain from producing attack ads while still defending yourself from them?

  6. I don't know. The rhetoric of politicians is now so mediated and consulted that I think most people suspect the attack ads aren't giving the whole picture. I wonder if a defense is even necessary. Still, to keep people's attention, I think you'd have to counter it with just as much media space.


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