Canadians are known for being nice. We are even teased for saying sorry when others would not bother.
But being taught politeness, an element of this niceness, can also circumvent saying what we think. Our society revels in differences over sports and food, but when we dissent on other issues of taste, appearance or behaviour, do we not hold our tongues to avoid embarrassment or tension? Do we prefer to avoid discovering deep disagreements on matters of principle and the nature of justice?
Alexandra Hudson in her book The Soul of Civility (St. Martin’s Press, 2023) says being polite can be an expression of a deeper commitment to civility, for example withholding blunt honesty when it might not advance relationship building. But politeness can also be used for tactical gain in advancing selfish interests.
Being polite can be an appropriate tactic in some contexts. But habitually refraining from speaking in order to keep the peace can breed wilful blindness or create wrong impressions of agreement. Misplaced politeness masks difference, avoids confrontation and communicates inappropriate indifference.
In some situations tolerance might be the more accurate motivation – forbearance when there is profound disagreement or refusal to converse civilly about wrongs done.
It’s vital that we embrace civility and learn how to disagree well, particularly in a religiously and culturally diverse society. Civility requires self-control, diplomatically allowing each person to articulate differences, be they on familial, community, national or international issues.
Civility also means holding to principles of conduct in how we will consistently behave – especially when we are apart, as expressed in the concept of Mizpah in Genesis 31:49.
Disagreements are increasingly expressed through social media, demonstrations and counterdemonstrations. The Hamas terror attacks on Israeli civilians and Israel’s intent to destroy Hamas in Gaza prompted an increased level of rhetoric and violence in Canada, and a significant rise in antisemitism. Too many now feel unsafe in a Canada known for tolerance, peace, order and good government.
How are we to exemplify and nourish genuine peace? When politeness disappears frustrations can surface and intergenerational strongholds of distrust, hurt and anger rise to challenge civility. Without a commitment to respectful conversations, people naturally turn up the volume in the hope others will relent or at least remain silent and become polite again.
How do we learn to disagree well?
But civility is about living peaceably. How do we learn and teach others to disagree well and in mutually assuring ways for each other’s well-being?
For civility to become broadly shared and its principles embraced, we all need to find reasons authentic to our respective deepest commitments and foster trust in our mutual commitment to live accordingly. Again, this must be both when together or apart – this is a central understanding of Mizpah.
Within a Christ-centred world view, civility requires self-control (forbearance) and a respect of and love for others (1 Peter 2:17). This respect is rooted in recognizing all people are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27; Psalm 139:14). We are admonished not to slander or give false reports, nor to bless God and curse those made in His likeness (Proverbs 6:16–19; Exodus 20:16; James 3:9–10).
Our civility is also borne out of a deep humility, knowing we see through a mirror darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12). We are to "be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love" (Ephesians 4:2), be ones who are "quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry" (James 1:19).
When we speak we are to do so truthfully and lovingly (Ephesians 4:25; 1 Corinthians 13), putting away bitterness, wrath and anger (Ephesians 4:30). Our answers are to manifest gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15), knowing a "soft answer turns away wrath, harsh words stir anger" (Proverbs 15:1).
Each of us can choose to learn the disciplines of civility by practising them, and others will learn civility when it is practised well with them, taught and learned by children, and modelled between communities. Civility is fostered in developing relationships across cultural, religious and ideological differences.
Civility is animated by a consistent and shared desire for a just and peaceful society where we behave and speak with integrity, whether together or apart, and are faithful in word and deed, bearing witness to all of the coming Kingdom.
Bruce J. Clemenger is senior ambassador and president emeritus of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Photo of man with cellphone: Getty Images
Author: Bruce J. Clemenger