Civility

Here’s why I think it is important — and how we can maintain it

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:24 am

I’ve pinned a bumper sticker on the bulletin board over my desk in Nollen house that says “Choose Civility.” I posted it (a gift from two members of the Grinnell family!) to remind myself and others that civility is a choice. It is an especially important choice to make in a community of passionate activists like ours where we at times discuss divisive issues and ideas. Experience has taught me that the natural course of communities who discuss such subjects without a conscious effort to be civil tends toward rancor and gridlock. I’ve also learned communities that make a conscious effort to be civil can converse respectfully, good-naturedly, and most of all very productively. That’s what I want for us. When I made civility one of the topics of an all-campus meeting last semester, I could almost hear folks wondering: “What’s Kington’s agenda? What big controversial issue is he preparing us for?” Truly, I did not have one in mind. But I know — we all know — that communities need to make hard decisions all the time. And our activist heritage and egalitarian culture means we like to get involved. That’s good. Here are some qualities that I think will serve us well as we work together:Generosity. Let’s be generous in giving one another lots of slack. When we encounter someone with a very different opinion on an issue that affects the College, let’s tell ourselves, “We are all doing the best we can under difficult circumstances, with the best interests of the Grinnell community in mind.” Then, let’s listen — intently and respectfully — to what they have to say. Listening is not always as easy as you may think – I know that all too well – but we should all try. Passion. Grinnellians are passionate about many things. That passion is one of this institution’s great strengths and one of the reasons I wanted to come here. But passion does not grant license to be uncivil. Effort. Choosing civility can be very difficult. In fact, it is a lifetime job. I work at it. I can remember a few times I’ve failed; and when and if I do, I encourage you to let me know that I have — I’m sure you will! When I have failed in the past, I have tried to apologize quickly. I’m getting better, and I invite you to join me. Humor. When we lose our sense of humor, we lose some of our natural flexibility, optimism, and ability to connect warmly and work productively with others. I continue to be amazed at the ability of a single humorous comment to bring a group together and to remind us of our shared humanity.