Freethought Almanac

Lighting a candle in toxic air.

A Little Civility, Please

The following is a commentary in an ongoing series of “Reflections” by John Mill. John Mill is the radio persona of Ronald Bruce Meyer and can be heard on “American Heathen.” “The American Heathen” Internet radio broadcast is aired, live, on Friday nights from 7:00pm-10:00pm Central time on

A Little Civility, Please

A Reflection by Ronald Bruce Meyer

I’ve been told on occasion that my words can be aggressive, that my tone is brusque, that I am impatient of other people, and that I should listen more and talk less. Civil discourse is a virtue, I am told, and by that measure I lack virtue. In other words, I need to be more civil in my conversation.

I hate to dissemble, I tell them, but I suppose you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. That is, if you desire to catch flies. I prefer to swat flies, but as a former speech communication teacher, I understand that in conversation you must consider the receptiveness of your audience: you can’t assume that everybody is a fly or that all flies deserve swatting. For one thing, who has the time and the energy?

This issue of civility comes to mind because I’ve been reading P.M. Forni’s 2002 book called Choosing Civility, which I consider a kind of self-help guide for the socially challenged. Perhaps that describes me, but even if not true, like the Bible, I’d be surprised if there were not some true and useful things said between the covers of a 196-page book. And this Reflection is not just about me.

Believe it or not, I’m always looking for keys to better discourse, better ways to approach people with the message of Freethought. I’m not God, so I don’t know everything and, sometimes, such as when reading Forni’s book, I feel I don’t know anything. The problem is, in the larger society, and especially in our political and religious discourse, I’m not alone.

At the center of Forni’s book is a section called The Rules. The Rules comprises what the author describes in his subtitle as 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct. I won’t go into all of them here, but a few of the rules deserve mention because of their glaring absence in public pronouncements in politics, and especially in religion. Incivility among our civic and religious leaders appears to be the rule, rather than the exception.

Of Forni’s 25 Rules, I’m going to give you four, numbers 2, 5, 10 and 13.

2. Acknowledge Others. When our religious leaders talk, they may appear ecumenical, even tolerant, but far from acknowledging others, they acknowledge only their own narrow doctrines and congregations. If “error hath not the same right as truth,” as the Church Father once said, then there is no need to acknowledge others. But if we follow my intellectual mentor, John Stuart Mill, if we assume we have the truth, and all of the truth, we not only profess to be infallible, but are in danger of what we profess to take hold of us as a prejudice, rather than a heartfelt conviction. If we acknowledge others, we allow for “the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth” we did not even know to be supplied.

5. Be Inclusive. It should go without saying that religions are exclusive. Every religion is a cult grown large enough to take on a patina of respectability. But there are always insiders and outsiders. In fact, there are always insiders against outsiders. That is the nature of any organization, else why have an organization? But with religion, as opposed to, say, nations, there is an assumption that the outsiders don’t know the divine truth, or reject the divine truth, or are simply immoral and deserving of eternal torment. I may be naïve in saying this, but I don’t see most nations treating each other this way.

10. Respect Others’ Opinions. Have you noticed when our political leaders speak, they speak as though they are under attack? Even when they are in the majority, like Christians, they use a tactic of playing victim, set upon by the tiny voices of Freethinkers and other religious dissenters. What would happen if they actually respected others’ opinions? There would be less drama, for sure, but perhaps more understanding.

13. Keep It Down. Political and religious discourse get so loud that you can’t hear yourself think. But maybe that’s they point. It’s certainly true that when religious fundamentalists shout out their hellfire and damnation at the general public, and promise that the nation is going to hell in a heartbeat if we don’t treat one group or another meanly enough, that we can’t hear them think! There is value in silence. On the one hand, silence can be a way of dismissing others, while acknowledgement may backfire by bringing something unimportant into importance. On the other hand, if you’re not fighting to be heard over the din of others shouting, maybe the others will wonder if they are being heard and lower their voices, too.

It’s not that people throughout the history of religion and politics haven’t been ignoring or excluding each other, or disrespecting others’ opinions or belligerently bellowing at each other. But what has it gotten us? I suggest another approach by taking the message of Forni’s book to heart. You might just shock people by choosing civility. And who knows? It might go viral. Isn’t it worth a try?

This Reflection is respectfully submitted.

Copyright © 2010-11 Ronald Bruce Meyer. To hear an audio version of this Reflection, click on this link: A Little Civility

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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January 17: Benjamin Franklin

“When a religion is good,” wrote Franklin, “I conceive it will support itself; and when ... its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”

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