• Palma Joy Strand

Searching for Civity

Updated: May 22, 2019

Civity and the Civity Academy are grounded in cutting-edge research into how the actions of individuals can influence society – for the better. From time to time, we will share key aspects of this evolving field with our readers. We look forward to hearing your thoughts!

The political weather reports are telling us that it’s nasty out there.

Michael Gerson at the Washington Post writes that “insults, invective and coarseness” will be “one of the ways that the election of 2016 will be remembered.”

David Brooks at the New York Times refers to “this depressing presidential campaign.”

We know that it’s nasty out there. And many of us are wondering what to do about it – what we can do about it.

Brooks traces our inclement political weather to an underlying social climate in which we cling to those who are like us. And yet, he says, connecting with “people unlike ourselves” is what holds our society together as a whole: “The guy sitting next to you at the volunteer fire department may have political opinions you find abhorrent, but you still have to get stuff done with him, week after week.”

Brooks is searching for Civity – a culture of deliberately engaging with people who are different from us with respect and empathy.

Gerson invokes civility and manners as the way in which we make these connections across difference: “We treat people with respect in the hope and expectation that we, too, will be treated with respect.”

Gerson is describing how we as individual people can create Civity by treating others as though they also belong – in our neighborhoods, in our schools, in our cities, in our nation.

As with any culture, Civity is created by the interactions of the people within it. Civity is created by us: We are the culture; we are the system.

This is the nature of systems: While we as individuals are micro, our individual actions have macroeffects.

How we treat the guy sitting next to us at the volunteer fire department, or ahead of us in line at the grocery story, or passing us on the street – it matters. Whether we offer respect to our colleagues, to the people who serve us coffee at Starbucks or McDonald’s, to the guy who delivers the pizza – it matters.

It’s particularly important that we respect people who for one reason or another are situated at the social periphery or who seem somehow socially “lesser” or “other.” Those are precisely the “people unlike ourselves” with whom connecting is the most essential.

Sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, in her book Respect, rejects the common understanding of respect as a one-way street, as an attitude of esteem and submission by which people of lower status elevate people of higher status.

She explicitly calls for people who are more powerful, “those usually seen as on the receiving end of respect,” to create relationships grounded in respect.

Lawrence-Lightfoot’s kind of respect, which consists of “nourishing respectful relationships,” means recognizing that everyone we encounter is a human being with his or her own story.

When we act on this recognition, we create Civity.

This kind of respect is vibrant; it creates space for “voices…of challenge and exuberance.” And it is bountiful: “Respect generates respect; a modest loaf becomes many.”

The challenging news is that we are the weather-makers. The energizing news is that we have the capacity to influence the weather.

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