Perhaps never in our lifetimes has personal choice been so strenuously promoted as a sacred, individual right. And rightly so. As free citizens we have so many choices, and the freedom to make them in many ways actually identifies what it means to be free. We all agree we can choose where we live, who we live with, and what our lives will look like, at least to some extent. And one need only head to Costco to experience the Super Bowl of choice. Everything there is available to us, if only we choose to spend the money.
The problem is that, as humans, we also can make poor choices, even choices that are dangerous for ourselves and others. And therein lies the challenge of law enforcement. As a society of laws, we actually have come to agree that the freedom of personal choice must be limited, and even fully abridged in certain situations. For example, speed limit laws make certain personal driving choices illegal. Yes, you have a choice, but choosing to break the law will bring a penalty. And so it is with myriad other personal choices available to us, some of which can even mean the loss of all personal freedom.
What about good choices we fail to make? What about standard acts of common courtesy that are more and more never chosen by the majority of our citizenry? I don’t see anyone protesting for those personal choices.
So, I’m going to be the first. I want to argue in favor of choosing civility. Full disclosure, I bought a book three years ago because it looked interesting. More disclosure, I never read it! But, as I left for vacation in the Pacific Northwest a few weeks ago, I decided to add it to my “vacation reading” box. And, yes, I started reading it and found it extremely convicting as well as motivating. The title is “Choosing Civility.”
Written by P. M. Forni, cofounder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, this wonderful little book argues convincingly for the importance of civility in any thriving society. After stating the case for civility, Forni lists “the 25 rules of considerate conduct.”
When I turned to the 25 rules, I expected something quite profound, some spectacular, erudite group of principles worthy of years of intense scholarly work. After all, Forni led with some statements about the number of years he had been preparing the book. But that wasn’t what I found.
Instead, I found a list of those thoughts and actions almost all of us heard from our parents, teachers, or coaches. The list is profound precisely because it reminds us how uncommon common courtesy has become.
Let me give you a sample. Among the 25 rules, each defined, defended and declared as essential, are: pay attention; acknowledge others; think the best; speak kindly; don’t speak ill; accept and give praise; respect others’ opinions. I could go on but you get the picture. Here’s my favorite: refrain from idle complaints. Wow, now that would greatly improve us as we now are wallowing in a society that competes to be seen as the greater victim.
Consider this rule: Don’t shift responsibility and blame. Imagine if this really became the choice of our citizenry. Of course, most broadcast media and the political machine they cover would have almost nothing to say, but at this point, I’d be willing to risk it.
But what I really want to leave with you is the poignancy of the book’s title: “Choosing Civility.” There you go. Some of the best things we can do in this life demand that we make a choice to do the right thing, be the righteous person, and act and speak in the right way, the way that promotes civility, unity and the common good.
Choosing to act in a way that benefits others while upholding universal human dignity and value is quite hard today since our new national sport seems to be judgment, ridicule and denigration, with the goal being the total destruction of fellow citizens who disagree and dissent.
Well, I choose civility. Yes, I have opinions. I have convictions. I have bedrock spiritual values grounded on biblical truths. But, I have no animus toward those who disagree with me, who even consider my choices to be intolerant of theirs. I say, let’s talk. Let’s grab a cup of common courtesy over coffee and seek first to understand before we pontificate, castigate and eliminate one another from the list of those considered valuable.
As you make your choices today and tomorrow, try choosing civility.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.