Civility and Speaking Up: Tips for Solution Based Advocacy (6)

Mark Kingwell believes a decline in civility is unhealthy for our Democracy and I agree.

Being civil is not about being polite, or being nice or not offending. There is an ethic of substance behind civility. Civility accepts that we hold differing views, beliefs and opinions.  Being civil however, enables passionate discussion, debate and discourse about disagreeable and agreeable ideas.  Civility moves our political literacy along the continuum from elementary to maturity. It is civil to speak up. It is equally civil to be open to the perspective of others while controlling and examining one's own views.

In other words, if we can't agree, maybe we can agree to disagree without attacking, name
calling, being rude, or shouting past each other.

Vaclav Havel, writer and former President of the Czech Republic expressed it this way: '...knowing how long to speak, when to begin and when to finish; how to say something politely that your opposite number may not want to hear; how to say, always, what is most significant at a given moment …how to insist on your own position without offending...'

Kingwell is a philosopher and cultural theorist who has been writing
about justice and its relationship to civility for the past 15 years. In
the current (April) issue of The Walrus he reflects on the break down of
civility in Parliament.

Here are a few quotes from his article to whet your appetite:

Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, persuasively suggested that sympathy, the recognition of shared human vulnerability, is the real glue of social structures.

Civility is something like the political air we must all breathe to negotiate our differences and, maybe, serve the cause of justice.

…most people do not turn the tables and investigate their own ideas.  Yet only by doing so can we come to see the weaknesses, as well as the strength of what we already believe.

Political literacy is the ability to engage in critical dialogue with ideas both agreeable and disagreeable, interests that align with ours and those that do not.  We need to learn this skill, run it, and revise it constantly by repeated engagements.  We must be prepared to sacrifice something we value, for the sake of the larger good.

For more information about Mark Kingwell:

A resource and major contribution to my own understanding of citizenship
is Mark's book: The World We Want: Virtue, Vice and the Good Citizen

Mark is a friend of PLAN's work and conducted a series of dialogues for a major project of ours: Philia ( which began a dialogue about a citizenship based theory of disability.  Catch some of Mark's reflections on citizenship at:

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  1. Sean Moore

    Another little gem, Al. An important, thoughtful piece that all advocates should reflect on.
    Sean (Moore)

  2. John McCulloch

    Al, A great commentary – thank you. I have been struggling lately at work with people who are polite enough, and “nice” enough, but by your and Mark Kingwell’s definition distinctly “uncivil”. I particularly like the thought that we can be passionate about our views, and yet recognise that others disagree, hold different ones, other beliefs and opinions, and that these deserve recognition.
    Helped me through my day – and to a more throughtful tomorrow.
    Thanks, John

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