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When We Talk About Civility, What Do We Mean?
Published on November 2, 2011 by Sara Foss

This New York Times article, on the supposed decline in Southern civility, has gotten a lot of criticism from the blogosphere, and rightly so. For one thing, the article makes an assumption I consider highly flawed: that civility (or the lack thereof) is something we should care about. I'm of the opinion that when people complain about a lack of civility, what they're really complaining about is the fact that some people disagree with them, and won't do them the favor of shutting up. If I remember correctly, the civil rights marchers demonstrated a distinct lack of civility by launching a bus boycott, and sitting at whites-only diner counters. People with manners just don't do stuff like that!

The article does acknowledge that civility has a dark side. "To be sure, strict rules regarding courtesy and deference to others have historically been used as a way to enforce a social order in which women and blacks were considered less than full citizens," reporter Kim Severson writes. "In the Jim Crow era, blacks and whites lived with a code of hyper-politeness as a way to smooth the edges of a harsh racial system and, of course, keep it in place, scholars of Southern culture say."

Right. What some people might consider civil, others might consider racist and sexist. Or just plain dumb. The article quotes a second-grade teacher in Birmingham who says manners have been "at the lowest level she has seen in her 36 years in the classroom. Parents who move South tell her they don’t want their children to learn to say 'yes, sir' or 'yes, ma’am.' Too demeaning, they say." At the risk of sounding like a Yankee agitator, I'm going to come right out and admit that if I ever have children, they are not going to grow up calling their teachers sir or ma'am, because I don't believe in teaching blind subservience to authority. The article ends with an anecdote about a dedicated ballroom dance and etiquette teacher, who vows that she will not give up her quest to teach Southern children about civility. Which, speaking of things my hypothetical children are never going to learn to do (unless they really want to)...

Anyway, the article is full of nonsense, but the more I think about what people mean when they talk about civility, the more I think it's perfectly fine that civility is eroding. Maybe now the focus can turn to other values, such as decency and fairness, that are far more important than knowing how to set a table and holding open doors for ladies.

I lived in Birmingham, and really enjoyed it. One of my favorite things about the place, and the South in general, was the hospitality. That really does exist, and it's nice. People are very social, and very willing to have you over for dinner or go out for drinks in the evening. Overall, there's much more of an emphasis on spending time with people than there is in the North, where people are always trying to impress you with how busy they are. "Oh, I'd love to meet up, but I'm busy for the next three weeks ..." I never had conversations like that in the South. Whereas I have them all the time in the North, and it's a drag. Of course, I was younger when I lived in the South, and people had more free time, because they didn't have children. But I also think people in the South just value leisure and hanging out with friends and family more than they do up here, where those activities are often regarded as a waste of time. What I'm saying, I guess, is that there are really nice features to living in the South and interacting with people there. But civility isn't one of them.

The Daily Howler rips the Times piece apart here.

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