Steven Petrow
1,883,287 views • 14:26

I want to start by telling you two things about myself before I get into the full talk. And the first is that I've been writing about manners and civility for more than 20 years, as a book author and as a magazine columnist. The second is, my friends know to be very wary of inviting me over for dinner because any faux pas that happens at the table is likely to wind up in print.


So, I'm watching, I can see back there and I can see through the portals, too.


So, speaking of dinner parties, I want to take you back to 2015 and a dinner party that I went to. To place this in time, this was when Caitlyn Jenner was first coming out, shedding her identity as a Kardashian and moving into her life as a transgender activist. I wrote a column in People magazine at the time, talking about the importance of names and how names are our identity. And that to misuse them or not to use them erases us in a certain way. And especially with Caitlyn Jenner, I talked about Caitlyn, but also the use of her pronouns. Her pronouns.

So I'm at this dinner — delicious, wonderful, fun — when my host goes on a rant about Caitlyn Jenner. And she is saying that it is disrespectful for Caitlyn Jenner to force her to use a new name and to use these new pronouns. She's not buying it, and I'm listening, and because I do meditation, I took my sacred pause before I responded.


And I reminded her that when she got married, she changed her name, and that she took the name of her husband. And that's the name all of us now use. We don't use it just because it's her legal name, but we use it because it's respectful. Ditto for Miss Jenner. She didn't buy it and we didn't speak for years.


So ... I am known as the Civilist. And it's probably a word that you're not that familiar with. It's not in common parlance and it comes from the Latin and the French, and it means an individual who tries to live by a moral code, who is striving to be a good citizen. The word "civility" is derived from that, and the original definition of civility is citizens willing to give of themselves for the good of the city, for the good of the commonwealth, for the larger good.

So, in this talk, you're going to learn three new ways to be civil, I hope, and it will be according to the original definition of civility. My first problem is: civility is an obsolete word. My second problem is: civility has become a dirty word in this country. And that is whether you lean right or whether you lean left. And in part, that's because modern usage equates civility with decorum, with formal politeness, formal behavior. We've gotten away from the idea of citizenship.

So, let me start by talking a little bit about my friends on the right, who have conflated civility with what they call political correctness. And to them, callouts for civility are really very much like what George Orwell wrote in "1984" — he called it "newspeak." And this was an attempt to change the way we talk by forcibly changing the language that we use. To change our ideas by changing the meaning of words. And I think my dinner host might have had some of that rattling around there. And I first personally understood, though, the right's problem with civility when I wrote a column about then-candidate Donald Trump. And he had just said he did not have time for total political correctness, and he did not believe the country did either. And I took that to heart, it was very — The audience was very engaged about that online, as you can imagine. There was a thousand responses, and this one stood out to me because it was representative: "Political correctness is a pathological system that lets liberals dominate a conversation, label, demonize and shout down the opposition." So I think, to the right, civility translates into censure.

So that's the right. Now, my friends on the left also have a problem with it. And for example, there have been those who have harassed Trump administration officials who support the President's border wall. They've been called out as rude, they've been called out as nasty, they've been called out as worse. And after one such incident last year, even the Washington Post — you know, left-leaning Washington Post — wrote an editorial and sided with decorum. And they argued that officials should be allowed to dine in peace. Hm. "You know, the wall is the real incivility here. The tear-gassing of kids, the separation of families." That's what the protestors say.

And imagine if we had sided, in this country, with decorum and courtesy throughout our history. You know, I think about the suffragettes. They marched, they picketed. They were chastised, they were arrested for pursuing the vote for women in the 1920s. You know, I also think about the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the father of American nonviolent civil disobedience. He was labeled as uncivil in his attempt to promote racial and economic justice. So I think you get a sense of why civility has become a problem, a dirty word, here. Now, does this mean we can't disagree, that we can't speak our minds? Absolutely not.

I recently spoke with Dr. Carolyn Lukensmeyer. She's kind of the guru of civility in this country, and the executive director of a body called the National Institute for Civil Discourse. And she told me, "Civility does not mean appeasement or avoiding important differences. It means listening and talking about those differences with respect." In a healthy democracy, we need to do that. And I call that respectful engagement.

But civil discourse also needs rules, it needs boundaries. For instance, there's a difference between language that is simply rude or demeaning, and speech that invokes hatred and intolerance. And specifically of groups. And I'm thinking of racial and ethnic groups, I'm thinking of the LGBTQ community, I'm thinking of the disabled. We snowflakes call this speech "hate speech." And hate speech can lead to violence.

So, to that point, in the fall of 2018, I wrote a column about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. You may remember her, she was one of the women who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. And among the responses, I received this message, a personal message, which you can see here on the slide. It's been largely redacted.


This message was 50 words long. 10 of them were the f-bomb. And the Democrats were called out, President Obama was called out, and I was referred to in a pretty darn vulgar and coarse way. There was an explicit threat in that message, and that is why my editors at The Post sent it to authorities. This came shortly before the pipe bombs were sent to other media outlets, so everybody was really kind of on guard there. And the larger context was, only a few months before, five staffers had been killed at a Maryland newspaper. They had been shot dead by a reader with a grudge. "Shut up or else."

And it was around that same time that a different reader of mine started stalking me online. And at first, it was ... I'll call it light and fluffy. It was around this time last year and I still had my Christmas decorations up and he sent me a message saying, "You should take your Christmas decorations down." And then he noticed that my dog was off leash one day, and then he commented that I had gone to the market. And then he wrote me one that said, "If anyone were to shoot and kill you, it would not be a loss at all." I wish that were the end of the story. Because then, a few months later, he came to my door, my front door, in a rage and tried to break the door down. I now own mace, a security system and a Louisville Slugger baseball bat.


"Shut up or else."

So, what's to be done to forestall civility from turning ugly, from turning violent? My first rule is to deescalate language. And I've stopped using trigger words in print. And by trigger words, I mean "homophobe," I mean "racist," I mean "xenophobe," I mean "sexist." All of those words. They set people off. They're incendiary and they do not allow us to find common ground. They do not allow us to find a common heart.

And so to this point, when John McCain died in 2018, his supporters noted that he never made personal attacks. But his opponents agreed as well, and I though that was what was really noteworthy. He challenged people's policies, he challenged their positions, but he never made it personal. And so that's the second rule.

So the problem of civility is not only an American one. In the Netherlands, there are calls for a civility offensive right now, and as one Dutch philosopher has put it, the country has fallen under a spell of "verhuftering." Now, this is not a word that I knew before and I did quite a bit of research. It loosely means bullying and the disappearance of good manners. It actually means much worse than that, but that's what I'm saying here. When you have a specific word, though, to describe a problem like that, you know you really have a problem.

And in the United Kingdom, the [2016] Brexit vote ... you know, has divided a nation even more so. And one critic of the breakup called those who favor it — I just love this phrase — "the frightened parochial lizard brain of Britain." The frightened parochial lizard brain of Britain. That's personal. And it makes me miss "Downton Abbey" and its patina of civility.

But therein lies the third rule: don't mistake decorum for civility. Even if you have a dowager countess as fabulous as Dame Maggie Smith.


[Don't be defeatist. It's so middle class.]

So let me end with one last story. Not that long ago, I was at a bakery, and they make these amazing scones. So, long line — there are a lot of scones. And one by one, the scones were disappearing until there was one woman in between me and that last scone.


Praise the Lord, she said, "I'll have a croissant."


So when it became my turn, I said, "I'll take that scone." The guy behind me — I'd never turned around, never seen him — he shouted, "That's my scone! I've been waiting in line 20 minutes." And I was like, "Who are you? I've been waiting in line 20 minutes, and you're behind me." So, I grew up here in New York, and went to high school not that far from here. And I may seem, you know, very civil here and so on, but I can hip check anybody for a taxicab in this room, on these streets. So I was surprised when I said to this guy ... "Would you like half?" "Would you like half?" I didn't think about it, it just came out. And then, he was very puzzled, and I could see his face change and he said to me, "Well, how about if I buy another pastry and we'll share both of them?" And he did, and we did. And we sat and talked. We had nothing in common.


We had nothing in common: nationality, sexual orientation, occupation. But through this moment of kindness, through this moment of connection, we developed a friendship, we have stayed in touch.


Although he was appalled to learn that I'm called the Civilist after that.


But I call this the joy of civility. The joy of civility. And it led me to wonder, what is the good we forgo, not just the trouble we avoid, when we choose to be uncivil. And by good, I mean friendship, I mean connection. I mean sharing 1000 calories. But I also mean it in a larger way. You know, as communities and as a country and as a world. What are we missing out on?

So, today, we are engaged in a great civil war of ideas and identity. And we have no rules for them. You know, there are rules for war. Think about the Geneva Conventions. They ensure that every soldier is treated humanely, on and off the battlefield. So, frankly, I think we need a Geneva Convention of civility, to set the rules for discourse for the parameters of that. To help us become better citizens of our communities and of our countries.

And if I have anything to say about it, I would base those rules on the original definition of civility, from the Latin and from the French. Civility: citizens willing to give of themselves for the greater good. For the good of the city. So I think civility, with that understanding, is not a dirty word. And I hope the civilist will not become, or will not stay, obsolete.

Thank you.