The Strength Of Civility

Scott Farrell comments:

“Modern society has been ingrained with a certain image of the “strong individual” — one that involves aggression, confrontation and intolerance. A man who is strong and brave doesn’t let others push him around. A woman who is confident and assertive doesn’t give up what she has rightfully earned … or so we’re frequently led to believe.

Prof. Damon Young looks at this from a different angle, however. A recent incident on a commuter train involving a teenager, a reserved seat and an iPod reminded him that selfishness is not a show of strength, and self-centeredness isn’t the same as confidence. His book Distraction: A Philosopher’s Guide to Being Free explores the moral challenges of living in a busy and crowded environment. In this essay, originally published as an editorial in the Australian Herald Sun, he advocates a return of the courtesies of chivalry that are, in fact, the ultimate demonstration of confidence and “backbone” in a civil society.”


Restoring the Confidence of Courtesy

Techology too often distracts us from human contact, and thus may contribute to a lack of civility - something we must actively combat, according to philosopher Damon Young.
Techology too often distracts us from human contact, and thus may contribute to a lack of civility - something we must actively combat, according to philosopher Damon Young.

Every time I board a train, I see him. And he annoys the hell of me. He’s in his 20s, he has his sunglasses on, cap pulled down, and iPod in. And he’s sitting on the seat reserved for elderly or special needs passengers.

My pregnant wife and toddler son need to sit down, but he’s not moving. He can’t see us, and he can’t hear — and he doesn’t want to. This is the normal, everyday face of public transport: it has a thousand faces, but the same sullen incivility.

Incivility is the opposite of civility, which is tied to notions like “city,” “civil society” and “citizen.”

At heart, civility is the basic requirement of politeness and courtesy for living in a built-up, densely populated urban environment — like a busy Connex train. Civility is not quite morality, because it doesn’t ask us to be genuinely good. Instead, it simply obliges us to be courteous: to recognise others’ basic claims to respect, peace, quiet and comfort.

Of course, incivility is nothing new — every age has its complaints of rudeness, thoughtlessness or tactlessness. The classical Greeks thought their youth bad mannered, and Victorian writer Henry James thought American girls vulgar. But new technologies are making incivility much simpler — and acceptable. The iPod, for example, is the ultimate tool for discourteous behaviour.

It enables a convenient, instant means of withdrawal — with portable, increasingly loud music, you can block out even the most earnest calls for help or generosity.

My, “Excuse me, would you mind moving over?” must be accompanied by shoulder-taps, or it’s lost to the din of tiny speakers.

Importantly, it’s not the iPod’s fault — the technology doesn’t make us withdraw from one another. It just makes it easier to do what we already want to do.

This is partly our modern view of life: an individualistic outlook, where the vices of greed and selfishness are praised as economically useful. And in a fast-paced, turbulent world, it’s comforting to retreat to a personal universe, complete with a soundtrack.

So when we’re packed like pilchards in a can, we hold fast to what’s ours: seats on a train, standing room by the door.

Yet these are just excuses. We’re free to act otherwise, and it’s time we did. To my mind, we need to remind ourselves of what encourages civility: strength, authority, responsibility.

Author and philosopher Damon Young

We tend to think of polite people as weak: deferential, meek, small. They say “pardon me” a lot, because they’re frail and scared. And perhaps this is true for some.

But at its finest, civility is actually a sign of a strong backbone. It takes confidence and assurance to give up what you’ve claimed — to stand while others sit, to wait while they disembark the crowded platform.

It takes a strong imagination to put yourself in the shoes of someone else — to see that the little boy or the pregnant woman might need your seat more than you do. And it takes bravery to face the world without your protective cap, glasses and iPod soundtrack.

It takes courage to live a life undistracted from your fellow citizens.

Sure, incivility isn’t going away. And Connex overcrowding is here to stay. But here’s a message to every Mr Sulky Earphones: man up, and have the strength to be civil.

You’ll feel much better about yourself.

© 2009 Damon Young, Ph.D.

About the author: Damon Young is an Honourary Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. He is the senior editor of the forthcoming book Martial Arts and Philosophy, which includes an essay on the philosophy of chivalry by Scott Farrell. Prof. Young is also author of the book Distraction: A Philosopher’s Guide to Being Free. This essay originally appeared in the Nov. 17, 2008 edition of the Australian Herald Sun. You can read more of Prof. Damon’s writing at his blog, That Young Philosopher.

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