Politicians and Civility
The opposition parties have promised to up the ante during the coming year in their efforts to challenge the government in the ‘new dispensation’. With a raft of measures in store for us – ranging from street protests to picketing exercises (with “educating” civil society thrown in for good measure)and parliamentary shouting matches – it might now be as good a time as any to remind one and all about the value of “civility” in a functioning democracy.
A while back, in our editorial “Civility”, we pointed out that while most persons believe that civility has to do with politeness or good manners, in truth the value goes much deeper. There are actually three facets to civility: civility as respect for others, civility as public behaviour and civility as self-regulation.
If in a democratic polity we are all supposed to be equal – at least before the law – then we have to respect the right of others to hold opinions that may differ from our own: we must respect, and even protect their right to differ from us. Today there is an element of sententiousness and dogmatism creeping into public discourse, especially from some elements in the media. This is especially troubling: let us remind ourselves of our duty of civility as respect for others.
In the stricture of civility as public behaviour, we are asked to go beyond the normal habits of courtesy imparted among members of a family or community. Concern shown to friends and family may arise from empathy or love, and it is likely to be strengthened by the certainty that we shall have to mix with them again in the future.
Civility towards strangers, however, requires that we behave in certain ways towards people who may mean nothing to us, and whom we are unlikely ever to encounter again. This facet of civility is most crucial in a divided polity as ours. We must bear in our minds at all times that when all is said and done, we will still have to live with each other in this land called Guyana. We cannot return to the days of hurling invectives at each other even as we pursue courses of action that may be opposed to each other. We have to agree to disagree.
The final element of civility is what one expert calls ‘sacrifice’, or what we might more mundanely refer to as “self-regulation”. Civility involves trimming one’s immediate self-interest—to desist from doing what would most please us for the sake of cordial relations with strangers. Civility means doing the right thing.
In a holistic sense, then, civility is behaviour in public which expresses respect for others and which requires restraining one’s own immediate self-interest when appropriate. Would we not all agree that this quality is very much needed in our society to begin the process of forming “one people”?
We especially commend this “self-regulative” aspect of civility to our politicians in this climate of recriminations and accusations that is being created. We have to look at the big picture and decide on what type of Guyana we wish to create. We cannot on one hand talk about building peace and trust and then turn around and engage in activities that create just the opposite.
Stridency and exaggerations must especially be abjured in the immediate future.
There is no question that different individuals will always want and desire different and possibly incompatible things, and their unbridled pursuit of their own objectives will unavoidably lead them into conflict.
This raises the question as to how (as well as how far) individual liberties are to be constrained. Ultimately, this will either be achieved by the state apparatus, or through enlightened self-regulation.
As Edmund Burke recognised back in 1791: ‘Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their own disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.”
We call upon those who would educate “civil society” to first educate themselves in the value of civility in the construction of a democratic polity.