The Virtue of Civility

I am heading down to Canberra for this weekend to attend the conference, Voices for Justice 2012. its purpose is to remind politicians of their commitment to the millennium development goals, and to challenge them with the fact that they have not lived up to their promised foreign aid spending.

the voices for justice website states the following about the participants:

At Voices for Justice 2010 gathering, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd referred to Micah Challenge supporters as “nagging prophets” for our persistent effort lobbying politicians to care about global poverty, and he urged us to continue.

the conference is an exercise in what is sometimes called public theology. We are attempting to outwork the values of our faith in the realm of politics and culture. the term “nagging” started me thinking about the lost virtue of civility, and the difference between firmly and respectfully communicating an argument and rudeness. A person who embodies the virtue of civility is respectful to everyone, and treats even those with whom she disagrees with respect and dignity. Civility is a social virtue, contributing to the health of relationships, to the progress of ideas and to wise decision making. Civility goes hand-in-hand with some other virtues. the civil person is:
• humble, recognising that they have something to learn from others;
• curious, open to fresh insight
• respectful, recognising the dignity of others, especially those with whom you disagree

Now, the truth is that civility is hard. I have studied 16 years after finishing my HSC, published books and articles and I am absolutely certain that my theological opinions are better than yours. Or so the arrogant, close minded, rude and untamed part of my character presumes. some of my recent dealings with the issue of Christians who support the submission of women to men evidence my own tendency to the vice of rudeness.

I was reading an article by Anne Summers during the week entitled “her rights at work” (see here), which explored the obnoxious and sexist way in which the Australian media, the opposition and the general public have attacked Australia’s first female prime minister; terms like “Juliar”; “Bob Brown’s bitch”; “ditch the witch.” And that is only the start. In his book, Hope (see here), Tim Costello, describes an address he once gave to parliamentarians (including Kevin Rudd) noting that good people, enmeshed in an increasingly rude environment, have lost the public virtue of civility. the consequence is that Parliament is no longer a forum for rational discussion and wise decision making. Instead it is an ongoing brawl. the tendency to attack political opponents ends up undermining the very purpose of Parliamentary discussion.

like politicians, protest its can also be horribly uncivil. And because that is so they undermine their own message, abrogating the right to be heard. Our challenge, in the face of parliamentarians whose politics we might fundamentally oppose, is to embody a different spirit. Costello notes that “Civility has to be cultivated; it is a learned art. Australians can do a lot better at it in all contexts.” If the theological virtues of faith, hope and love really do colour our moral life, then the virtue of civility must be part of the habits of our character.

About Author

Shane is an ethicist and theologian, Honorary Associate for the Centre of Disability Research and Policy, the University of Sydney, and Assistant Director, Policy, at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation against People with Disability. Shane is proudly disabled, and an occasional blogger on


  • Dave Keane
    September 15, 2012 at 10:45 pm

    Shane, that is good stuff mate. We can all tend to drop civility in the quest to ‘prove our point’, and often the loudest shouter is the one to whom others defer. I once heard it said that a sure sign of one not being secure in their view is that they feel the need to attack those with alternate views.

    I often see the same sort of ‘spirit’ in denominational discussions, and discussions between those of different religions.

    One thing I have always appreciated about our friendship mate, is that even though we have disagreed on a whole range of theological issues, we have always been able to talk about them in a dignified way and keep a strong friendship in the midst of our diversity of views. I miss our chats, and hope we can sit down at some point in the future and have a few more.

    God bless you mate – you are an inspiration (even when you don’t feel as though you are…)

  • Toni salter
    September 16, 2012 at 7:19 am

    Here! Here!

  • Sandra Godde
    September 16, 2012 at 11:36 am

    Excellent comment Shane. The public art of civility is waning in our country. Of course it is an art that requires discipline of self, and if one really thinks about it, can only be truly done at a root level by the transforming power of Christ in a soul.

  • Tanya Riches
    September 16, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Hey Shane,
    I was just reading an article in World Development by Deneulin & Radoki on religion, and the World Bank’s report ‘Voices of the Poor’ came up in regards to the importance of religion for development, both for understanding of wellbeing for the poor, but also in helping meet development goals.
    I think the Government and academics often underestimate churches and faith-based organisations – but the presence on the ground is staggering (apparently 10% of India’s medical services can be attributed to FBOs, and in many African nations up to 50% of relief efforts). This contributes a local knowledge that anchors the nagging – but I assume Rudd’s comment was actually positive, as I know he identifies as Christian and would probably be having lunch regularly with Tim Costello if party politics don’t prevent it (I know I would).
    I hope you can write a blog on how this conference goes – would have loved to come!

  • Lauren
    September 17, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    civility is … nice but what about ‘virtues’ like sarcasm, parody, anger, grief or silence. do these characteristics also have a space in discourse and debate?


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