Civility by Stephen L. Carter

YOU MAY WONDER, as I did, Would the uncivil read a book on civility? When it comes to civility, though, it's OK to be in the choir and fervently preached at. While civil behavior begins with childhood instruction and continues with self-discipline, there are pop quizzes every day for life. And we won't instantly become a more civil society by osmosis. As Garrison Keillor has said of religion: You can become a Christian by going to church just about as easily as you can become an automobile by sleeping in a garage.

As marginalized as the need for civility may become in troubled times, it's fundamental to solving human relationship problems and to peace-making. Absent the qualities of heart and mind that are summed in civility, a discussion becomes a heated debate, a gathering becomes a mob, a territorial dispute leads to war.

Stephen L. Carter's Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy was published about three years before last year's 9/11 attacks and the "war on terrorism" that followed them, and 18 months before a second and much more violent cycle of violence began in the Middle East. Many of Mr. Carter's observations, beginning with his anecdote about surly filling station attendants and wordless stares from fast-food workers, seem trite and pedantic. But law professor that he is, Carter builds a case skillfully, from basic maxims or "duties" up to a well-woven argument. Maxim number one: "Our duty to be civil toward others does not depend on whether we like them or not" (p. 35).

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In her true light...
April 22, 2002

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