A Breakdown in Civility in Canada?

Stephen Carter, a professing Christian and distinguished professor at Yale Law School, suggested that the central crisis he felt that was facing Western culture was the accelerating breakdown of civility.

Maybe one of the greatest proofs of the accuracy of that statement can be answered by your response to a question: “When was the last time that you heard the word ‘civility’ used in every day speech?” My gut sense would be, “seldom, if ever.”

It seems like some words leave a culture forever and die through a terrible lack of use. The problem is that the activity associated with that word also tends to depart. The word that is erased from the mind is lost to speech, and words that are no longer spoken lose their power to influence society.

According to the dictionary, civility simply means “courtesy or politeness.” It refers to words and actions that breed good culture. Some would call it manners: ie. how we speak to the young, the words we use and the way we say them, how we treat our wives in public, or, the regard we have for others around us.

Remember when men would get up and give their seat to an elderly citizen or pregnant woman entering the bus? Remember when cars waited on pedestrians crossing the street before they turned? Remember when we heard “thank you” being uttered because people were truly thankful for service? Remember when men opened the door for their wives?

Civility is associated with two key words: civilian and civilization. I believe that they are interrelated. I believe the level of civility expressed by civilians creates the kind of civilization that causes us great embarrassment or the kind of civilization that brings a smile and strengthens our back with pride.

Carter noted that Western nations were caring less and less about their fellow citizens. No longer were fellow citizens seen as fellow passengers. He made the comment that “we may see them as obstacles or competitors, or [worse], we may not [even] see them at all…”

You and I have a responsibility to open our eyes to see those around us. If civility is going to make a comeback within our Canadian culture, it is going to need a kind word, a helping hand – yours, a smile. Maybe it will require waiting a moment without frustration or expectation – by the way, it’s not the end of the world. What about responding instead of reacting?

In October 2007 the Center for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism interviewed Reginald W. Bibby. Bibby chairs the Department of Sociology at the University of Lethbridge. He had written a press release on research entitled, “Good without God, Better with God?”

Bibby’s article created quite a stir because he connected the nation’s interpersonal relational health to the practice of faith. He implied that the connection between human values and the practice of civility in Canada was linked.

He stated, “To the extent that Canadians say ‘good-bye’ to God, we may find that we pay a significant social price” – ie. a breakdown in good manners. I happen to believe that.

I know that an assumption is required here: for someone to be compassionate we would have to assume that they value compassion. However, my understanding is that values do not emerge from a moral vacuum. Their source is some form of training – ie. conscience, parental, educational, or, spiritual tutoring.

I believe every community should contend for a comeback in civility. Each community can be a winner. What a grand goal!