February 2015 Feature Article
As the General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, I contribute op-ed articles to the Straits Times on current issues pertaining to kindness and graciousness. Two of them provoked responses and reactions. [i] Though most were positive responses, there were some negative reactions including a handful of very angry and rude comments, punctuated with insults, name-calling, and excoriation so typical of uncivility that permeates some quarters of our social media. Shielded by the cloak of anonymity, the shrill voices, complete with expletives, often reaching fever pitch and polluting the cyberspshere. These netizens are no doubt passionate and see it as their warrior duty to straighten me out without any consideration as to how to disagree without being disagreeable.
Civility is about how we go about registering our disagreements, without being disagreeable. It is about finding positive ways to converse and interact with each other in the public space. It comprises “the exercise of patience, integrity, humility, and mutual respect in civil conversation, even (and especially) with those with whom we disagree.” [ii] Civility does not require that we compromise or abandon our particular convictions and values. It merely requires us to negotiate our disagreements with our fellow citizens in wholesome ways because we respect them as citizens and human beings, created in the image of God.
It is very tempting, I must confess, to respond in kind when you feel unjustly excoriated. But then as a Christian, I must take seriously the admonition of Peter who writes to the early Christians, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15). Though the context is evangelistic-apologetical, civility should apply to interactions in all contexts. Gentleness in response to anger is advocated in Proverbs 15:1, “A gentle answer turns away wrath.” It is driven by the respect we should have for people who may disagree with us.
Paul aligns with Peter in his letter to the Colossians, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col. 4:6). To be gracious implies a deportment of pleasantness, attractiveness, winsomeness and charm. Graciousness should characterise our response to others precisely because of the grace or undeserved favour we have received from the Lord.
The function of salt includes purification and preservation. It is also a seasoning agent. Hence, our speech should be identified by the purity and wholesomeness of our language. At the same time it should not be insipid. On the contrary, it should be sprinkled with the salt of wit giving zest and liveliness to the conversation. C.F.D. Moule comments that we are “not to confuse loyal godliness with a dull, graceless insipidity.” [iii]
The example of civility is found in the Lord’s conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). The unnamed woman lived on the margin of Jewish society, and Jesus interacted with her respectfully and gently. While speaking the truth, He did so with love, in a kind, compassionate, and redemptive manner. In His encounter with the woman at the well, Jesus shows us the practical application of “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).
Our political consciousness has been recently awakened even as the economy is becoming more challenging. Public trust is waning as individuals feel increasing vulnerable in the wake of income-gap widening and jobs perceived to be taken by outsiders. Social cohesion wears thin in the face of incipient xenophobia. Stories of discontent, rage and agitation fill our newsprint, airwaves, coffee shops and especially the social media. Where are the voices of balance and moderation in these challenging times?
I am convinced that the moderates are in the majority, but for whatever reason, we remain the silent majority. Unless we are prepared to take the lead and speak out with civility as taught by the Lord, the minority will appear to be in charge of the conversation. The hallmark of a great civilization is when we value civility as a virtue that binds peace-loving people of different persuasions together in community. The fabric of our society is in danger of tearing when it is allowed to be stretched thin by extreme incivility of a minority.
Civility in our collective conversation is not just a matter of discourse. It is a positive approach to social engagement. By ignoring the loud shrill voices of a minority in the social media, and allowing them to have a field day, we are abdicating our responsibility to act responsibly. We cannot allow ourselves to be isolated and insulated by not engaging. It is through engaging with civility that we can hope to preserve and promote civility in our national ethos.
Perhaps the life and work of Roger Williams (1603-1683), a Puritan who founded Rhode Island, could inspire us. He posited civility as the “rules of the game” for living in a pluralistic society and considered it essential to ensure public peace, maintain social order, and create the conditions for citizens to cooperate on matters of public interest and common good. He recognized that members of a pluralistic society are unlikely to completely agree on a substantive vision for what is right and good for society, but he assumed that all would agree that basic norms of tolerance, respect, common courtesy, patience, and honesty were necessary principles for debating and discharging our responsibilities for the common good.[iv]
We need the spirit of Roger Williams today. We need Christians who believe in civility to rise up and engage the uncivil for we have the moral responsibility “for such a time as this” (Esth 4:14).
Dr William Wan is the General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement. He is also a winner of the Active Ager Award (Council of the Third Age) 2011. Prior to taking on this role as General Secretary, he was practising law and managing a psychometric company. He has always been active in community-based work and believes that kindness breeds kindness.
[i] “Where has all our empathy gone?” (empathy: _http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/singapore/story/where-has-all-our-empathy-gone-20140124)
“Even Jover Chew deserves due process law.” (jover chew:_http://www.straitstimes.com/news/opinion/more-opinion-stories/story/even-jover-chew-deserves-due-process-law-20141122)
[ii] James Calvin Davis, In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues That Divide Us (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 159.
[iii] C.F.D Moule, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians and to Philemon. (Cambridge University Press, 1957), 135.
[iv] For more on Roger Williams’s conception of civility, see James Calvin Davis, The Moral Theology of Roger Williams: Christian Conviction and Public Ethics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), chapter 5.
[v] If you are interested in doing something about engaging the uncivil, please email me.