Chasing Down The Muse: Civility is more than just a word

Civility costs nothing, and buys everything.

—Mary Worthy Montague


The announcement had been made the day before.

It was not as if it were something we had anxiously been awaiting, but as the group of friends sat around the table playing with clay, making ceramic birdhouses together, the subject came up.

On that crisp December morning between rainstorms we had gathered in one of the new Sawdust Studio art classes. As so often happens in these settings, conversations twist and turn in many directions as the focus stays on the work at hand of creation.

"Did you hear that Merriam-Webster announced the word of the year?"

I don't know whether we were all just specially tuned in that week or what, but we had all heard the news. The announced word of the year for 2010 was, not surprisingly, "austerity."

After batting around our thoughts on the choice and what it seemed to mean to each of us, I could not help but speak up.

"Civility! Right now, I vote for civility to be the 2011 Merriam-Webster word of the year."

I just had to say it. On both a personal level and in the world at large, this word had been creeping around the edges of my consciousness, and it seemed that my fellow birdhouse builders felt the same way.

Now, many weeks, and far too many uncivil moments later, the word is ever more present in my mind. President Obama used the word several times in his State of the Union Address. Several groups have called for greater civility since the horrific shooting in Arizona.

All well and good, but what, I wonder, will actually change?

How we speak to and about each other says a lot about each of us — much more than it says about the object of our speech. If we are to have any self-respect, then the civility we show others is not a choice but a command.

Singer Emmy Lou Harris has said that "as citizens we have to be more thoughtful and more educated and more informed … if we don't get our civility back, we're in trouble."

The question becomes, how we are to get back our civility, our respect for others and their rights? How do we create an environment that can help grow peace rather than one that is open to violence and hatred?

How is it that the has already shut down after a mere two years of trying to enlist politicians and others to participate? It sent a letter asking members of Congress and sitting governors to sign the Civility Pledge, which contains just three items:

"I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.

"I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.

"I will stand against incivility when I see it."

They were able to get three signers! Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn) and Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) were the sole members of the House to sign. Not one governor took the pledge.

Graciousness, kindness, common decency, consideration, respect — each wrapped up in civility — are these just empty words? There should be no room left for impoliteness, rudeness, surliness and disrespect. When we disagree, we certainly can do so respectfully, without attacking the character of another.

Can't we?

Again, as I did on that day in December, I will cast my vote now for the 2011 word of the year — civility. I will choose to embrace this characteristic in my own life and hope you will at least consider the same. I look forward to next December's announcement that Merriam-Webster has agreed with me, for that will mean that we are at least making progress toward change for the better.

CHERRIL DOTY is an artist, writer, counselor…always fascinated, inspired, and titillated by the beauty and mysteries of life. She can be reached at or by phone at (714) 745-9973.

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