How important is ‘civility’?

July 29, 2009 at 10:13 pm | Posted in British Politics, Social Policy | Leave a comment

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In my school sociology class, we used to hear a lot about the ‘Golden Age ‘. We used to learn that for every age of innocence evoked by the media or our older relatives, there were still plenty of dangers, tragedies & traumas, and that we should treat with scepticism those claims that life was much safer, healthier & more civil than the times in which we live.

The ultimate lesson from all this – that our best days are not, in fact, behind us – was a formative influence on my political journey, and the rejection of the idea that society is in irrevocable decline has guided much of what I write here. Yet the sense of decay still lingers – in certain sections of the media, in the political rhetoric of the day & even in the minds of the general public – and I’ve been interested in where this ennui comes from, whether there’s any truth to it, and whether we can rediscover what many feel has been lost.

Last month, I discussed the Rowntree Foundation’s publication on ‘social evils‘, which reported that the public believed the modern age had made us more selfish & individualistic, less honest & compassionate. Then last week I looked at the Conservative crusade against the ‘broken society’, and pondered why that campaign had found resonance where John Major’s ‘back to basics’ had failed. Responding to that post, Joe Hallgarten linked to this report from the Young Foundation which explores whether a renaissance of civility could help us shrug off this societal gloom.

As with the report on social evils, defining what does and does not constitute ‘civility’ is difficult because we don’t all interpret each other’s behaviours in the same way. Likewise, there’s no research method available which could tell us whether we’re being more or less civil to each other; the only thing we can measure is whether people feel they experience civility, and even then you’re relying on the subjectivity of human experience. It’s simply impossible to measure this kind of thing objectively.

Still, the report’s authors do make a decent stab at pinning down what they mean, and it all seems perfectly, well, civil: giving up seats to elderly or pregnant women, smiling & greeting strangers, picking up litter, being a good neighbour, volunteering when you have the time & donating to charity when you have the money. I don’t think any of these behaviours has gone out of fashion, and they can all contribute positively to society.

But whilst the report tries to universalise the quest for civility as essentially classless – it chides everyone from ASBO teens & binge drinkers to bickering politicians & greedy bankers – the absence of a serious discussion of class or inequality does make you wonder whether the authors are merely tinkering with the artifice of British society. Even if we were to accept the premise that Britain is a less civil place and that there are things which individuals, social groups, companies & even governments can do to promote more civil social norms, the following question remains: can you really increase civility without first seeking to reduce inequality?

When you consider that people in deprived communities are more likely to be the victims of crime and less likely to have achieved well in school, their access to this more civilised future is bound to be retricted. This isn’t to say that working class folk are intrinsically less civilised than anyone else; merely to note that those incivilities which are most damaging, both to society & the taxpayer, can be located in these areas. There is a big difference between being a victim of a knifepoint mugging and being the victim of rudeness.

For all the suspicion I feel towards the concept of ‘golden ages’ or of our tendency to mythologise the past, there’s still something positive about people in civic society taking a look at the way they live & communicate with others, and wondering whether we could all be doing better. But the task of achieving a happier society won’t be achieved simply by promoting good manners, but by trying to nudge us towards a society enjoys greater equality of opportunity. For that reason, whilst this is a thoroughly interesting topic to read about & debate, it should remain just one part of a much broader conversation.

(Image via Wardomatic)

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