Civility Begins with Us

If we made a list of useful, real-world antidotes to the divisive forces running rampant in our current political climate, civility would certainly be among the top entries. It is important that we not dismiss civility as mere politeness and courtesy. Civility is much more than a simple social lubricant. It arises from the bedrock recognition that we are all humans beings, all deserving of respect.

We selected civility as the theme of the current academic season to jump-start dialog among all members of the FIT community about how we talk and interact with each other, not just here on campus but in the wider world as well.

There is no better way to “think globally and act locally” than to approach every interaction as an act of civility, whether we are buying a cup of coffee from a man in a street cart or talking to our loved ones or participating in our February Town Hall Forum on diversity and inclusion in our own Katie Murphy amphitheater, which was organized by the UCE.

We heard from a number of faculty, including Dr. Paul C. Clement, Chair of the United College Employees’ (UCE) Diversity Committee; Professor Roberta Elins, President of UCE of FIT; and Dr. Ron Milon, FIT’s Chief Diversity Officer. Along with formal presentations, we also heard a remarkable outpouring of personal experience from the audience about what happens when our civilization steps away from the restraining bonds of civility in favor of hateful rhetoric and police-state tactics.

Projected on a screen above us during the Town Hall was an image of Martin Luther King, Jr., for whom civility was a vital aspect of nonviolent change.

“Civility is about more than just politeness, although politeness is a necessary first step,” Dr. King said. “It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. It is political in the sense that it is a necessary prerequisite for civic action. But it is political, too, in the sense that it is about negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s is ignored.  And civility begins with us.”

Common ground. Dr. King worked in exceedingly difficult times and yet he embraced the need to find common ground. And in our own difficult time, we must dedicate ourselves to our common humanity. As educators and students, we are on the front lines of promoting the values of brotherhood, tolerance, and peaceful coexistence.

In his 2018 “New Year Prayer to Mother Earth and All Our Ancestors,” Buddhist monk, teacher, and philosopher, Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote, “We have felt the strength and warmth of brotherhood and sisterhood, and we know that together, we can face our challenges and realize our aspiration. We vow, in this solemn moment, to continue to build our family, our community and to open up the path for ourselves and our descendants.

Yes, civility can be very hard work. Tolerance and acceptance are equally hard. But it is our job to build up our community, just as Thich Nhat Hanh says, and I am certain that we at FIT are up to the task.

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