Reaching for Civity
Krista Tippett, host of NPR’s On Being, struggles with the word “civility.”
In a recent Living the Questions segment, Tippett names the danger of using “civility” as a “passive-aggressive weapon” to silence anger. “My concern is that the word is too meek, that it’s about being nice and tame and safe. And I don’t think stepping into any of the dark places and the fraught places right now can be nice or tame or safe,” she says.
Tippett continues: “I always reach for other words to attach, like ‘muscular.’ It has to be muscular; it has to be robust — this language we use in the Grounding Virtues, ‘adventurous civility.’ It needs to be an adventure.”
Tippett is reaching for civity.
Like it or not, our nation and too often our communities are still like a club that caters to the privileged. Not everybody is a member; you have to live in the “right” neighborhood to join.
Yes, over the decades, the club has expanded its membership rolls. The charter members were White men who owned a lot of property. But now (at least according to current membership rules) you no longer need to own property to be allowed in. You no longer need to be White. You no longer need to be a man.
But being allowed in under the official rules doesn’t mean everyone gets equal time in terms of broadcasting their views throughout the club. It doesn’t mean it’s just as easy for everyone to actually get into and enjoy the clubhouse. It doesn’t mean everyone has the same chance to set and carry out the club’s agenda.
Being allowed in the club also doesn’t mean all charter club members are happy about the expanded membership. They were pretty snug in their club chairs with their after-dinner drinks and cigars, and they don’t always take kindly to having their comfortable routine disturbed.
It’s natural that new members might want to shake things up a bit: move the furniture around, open the windows and air things out, maybe even peel off the gold-flocked wallpaper and replace it with painted wall murals.
The new members might try to be respectful but might also get impatient and, after a while, even angry. After all, this is supposed to be their clubhouse and their club, too.
The charter members might grumble, “This isn’t how we do things here.” They might invoke a principled-sounding but ultimately vague code of behavior in admonishing the newcomers. “Civility,” they might say, “is how all club members should conduct themselves.”
But calling for “civility” in this way may just be another way for the charter members to keep running the club.
As Tippett recognizes, we still have the dark places and the fraught places that need to be addressed, explored, and discussed.
We are at a time when old patterns of exclusion, of power, of injustice have shifted – and they need to evolve still further.
We are at a time when we are reaching for a vision in which old members and new members are able to stay true to who they are while at the same time learning to live together in mutuality.
Responding to this moment, civity invites people to take the risks associated with genuine engagement with each other and with our differences. That risk-based engagement creates the possibility for co-creation and growth, while avoidance of real or potential conflict closes off that possibility.
“See”ing people who are different, listening to people who are different, igniting our imaginations to hear and internalize the stories of people who are different – civity is about taking the relational steps necessary to move toward the possibility of change and to engage in the conflict that leads to change. Civity invites us into spaces of dis-equilibrium and in-stability from which we can move into adaptation and growth.
Civity is Tippett’s “adventurous civility.” Civity offers a way to navigate the dark and fraught spaces, by recognizing our reliance on each other and by building “social muscle” that can change culture.
Civity calls on all club members, especially those who are comfortably ensconced in the hallowed halls, to look up, look out, and get in the mix.