Civility stems from the Latin word for citizen, civilis, but it implies much more than an individual’s contributions to society. In the context of society, civility is about a collective abstinence from moral righteousness. At its best, it is constructive and conducive for the betterment of a well-functioning society, and it begins with the individual. In this capacity, the willingness to accept and tolerate perspective that is different from one’s inherent disposition is fundamental to civility. In his work on the psychology of morality, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that people do not generally engage in moral reasoning, rather, moral rationalization. It involves beginning with a predetermined moral conclusion and working backwards to a plausible justification. This is a fundamental contradiction to civility and it is why perspective remains important today as international politics become increasingly polarized, and as our demographics evolve with globalization.
In the context of the developed world, civility has become increasingly sidelined. Though not a global movement, many countries have digressed as they have accumulated wealth and power. Mindset has become insular amongst many individuals and governments have revealed in kind, their inclinations towards self-interest, transforming benign patriotism into nationalistic populism. There is an ignorant tendency to focus overtly on matters that serve only to trivialize society, and another tendency to exercise hegemony over nations that uphold dissimilar political discourse. The United States has led by example on these two fronts, now further upended by the Trump administration. A recent Washington Post article entitled “No one is paying attention to the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II”, explains how Trump’s presidency has diverted attention from bigger, more pressing issues. Some 20 million people in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Nigeria will suffer from famine and likely death in the coming months, and it remains that only a handful know about this because the mainstream media is still working hard to uncover the true meaning of ‘Covfefe’. This obsession is in turn a reflection of what modern society really cares about. Yesterday I watched a five person panel discussing the ‘concerning implications of Trump’s tweets’ on CNN. That it is necessary for five political pundits to sit together and decipher the already blatant implications of Trump’s tweets, is also very concerning.
On matters of hegemony, Trump is ironically the only Republican president to have publicly acknowledged one of the US’ most fundamental and consequential failures. In a speech on foreign policy that candidate Trump made in 2016, he spoke of how foolishness and arrogance had surpassed logic in the country’s foreign policy initiatives: “It all began with the dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a Western democracy. We tore up institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed.” There is a telling paraphrase of a quote by the late philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, to which the rhetoric of US leadership continues to reverberate in kind. I attended an event in New York City in June where Raymond Odierno, retired 38th Chief of Staff of the US military, was invited as a keynote speaker. In 2003, his division played a major role in the invasion of Iraq, the division that would eventually capture Saddam Hussein, despite proof that Hussein posed no imminent threat at the time of attack. It was interesting to listen as he condescendingly shared his thoughts on the poor state of other nations around the world, with an ironic take on the importance of US sovereignty in matters of Russian intervention. Coincidentally, Tony Blair was also present to share his views on the world. In 2016, he defended his decision to dispatch British forces to join their American allies in the invasion of Iraq, and of course just across the border back in 1953, the US had already helped the Brits end Iran’s sovereign control over its oil. As history informs us, this remains the undying extent and influence of US military hegemony. Though his intentions may be controversial, that Trump remains the only Republican president to have spoken against the negative repercussions of hegemonic military policy should be a serious wake up call for the US, the leader of the free world, to divert its attention onto its own state of civility and away from the US imperative.
Incidentally, I write this from Cambodia, where the death toll of some 1.5 million citizens during the Khmer Rouge genocide was inextricably related to, and reinforced by broader US intervention policies, namely the bombing and destabilization campaign instigated in 1965. Until recently, the livelihood of Cambodians had long fallen subsequent to politically fueled chaos, and as a result they have tended to see the world a little differently from much of the developed world. Progress is what remains most important to many of Cambodia’s citizens because they are focused on, and hopeful for, a better future. Foreign governments, NGOs and journalists seek to condemn the political and economic state of Cambodia at present, and justifiably so. However, they are often unable to appreciate what progress has been made, because they did not have to endure the suffering. It is easy pass judgement when you come from a place where justice is relatively upheld. A few days ago I spoke to a local Cambodian who works for Habitat for Humanity. The previous day, the last of the trials for members of the Khmer Rouge had ended, and a nine year tribunal had produced a total of three convictions for men already at the end of their lives. His thoughts were unexpectedly poignant: “Let time judge them. Because I grew up through war and poverty, I don’t complain. I was a baby, just 11 months old when my father was killed. We have made a lot of progress and we have opportunities and chances at a better life that we never had before.”
Of course, developing countries are not model societies of civility either, but the civility of individuals in the developed world cannot always be meaningfully compared to that of their counterparts in the developing world. With greater access to education, technology, wealth and power, comes an added and distinguished moral responsibility. Acceptance and tolerance in spite of difference is the hallmark of civility. The paradox is that it is perhaps more commonplace in the developing world. While many of these citizens still fall victim to despots and dictators, citizens of some of the world’s most marked democracies have drifted into retrograde thinking, reflecting a larger digression from a liberal state of democracy to an illiberal one. Akin to citizens with relatively greater wealth and education, the same moral responsibility should be adhered to the governments of leading nations, especially on matters of foreign policy. However, it is when countries repudiate foreign sovereignty based on self-interest, that the world falls apart. At the micro level it is called proselytizing; at the macro level it is called hegemony.
As public discourse still fails to acknowledge that we are constantly blinded by our own sanctimony, the relevant question remains: how can we progress back to civility? As aforementioned, it begins with the individual if the actions of our democratic institutions represent the will of the people. Earlier this year, Fareed Zakaria spoke on CNN of the intolerance of liberals in the US. As the commencement season began, it was the case that conservative views were being completely suppressed in a series of demonstrations. As a manifestation of liberal education, not in reference to partisan language, but liberty, it served to represent an innate intellectual intolerance. Zakaria referred to this as “an attitude of self-righteousness that says we are so pure, we’re so morally superior”, and noted that no one has a monopoly on right or virtue and that while we may seem so far apart, we do actually have a common destiny. As a call to governments, educational institutions, media agencies and citizens alike, it should be remembered that a different perspective of the world can inform us in ways that our prejudices cannot. This is the way back to civility.