Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Civility Costs Nothing

Centuries ago people were more isolated and clustered together in like-minded groups. For example, whole countries and even continents followed just one religion, or spoke one language, hardly ever setting eyes on anyone who followed another or spoke other languages.

Though we may not really recognize it today, significant population shifts and migrations often led to conflict and political upheaval. It seems to be a basic human instinct to fear the unknown and even loathe it. With knowledge and understanding come tolerance and enlightenment, but to get to that stage people first have to get past their fear and loathing.
The idea that all people can and should live together in peace is not really a new one -
but yet in practice, it is very young indeed.

Be that as it may, this is the 21st century and we live in a multicultural world. Today almost every country has multiple religions, cultures and languages resident within its borders. Even city suburbs and work environments form microcosms of the larger society as a whole, with people of all backgrounds mingling, socializing and interacting on various levels. In most cases they co-exist in peace, even where one particular ethnic group, or even one culture or religion outnumbers the rest. Though sadly, in some less civilized places, tensions give rise to what can only be called avoidable tragedy and uneccessary bloodshed, with one group trying very hard to subjugate or eliminate entirely, the other.

I said 'less civilized' places, because it is a sign of truly advanced culture for the diverse to live together in tolerence, mutual respect, peace and even friendship - talking about things which bother them rather than killing each other and giving rise to a vicious circle of even more tension. The logical person will recognise that no matter how much violence explodes between different groups, in the end they will still have to talk to each other anyway - so why not just cut to the chase from the beginning?

Let us take a look at tolerance in practical daily life: I might for arguments sake live in a street where I have as neighbors

  • a bunch of noisy folks who like to party till the sun comes up, and whose noisy chihuahua I sometimes wish would fall in their pool and drown,
  • a guy who chains his 30 year old Mazda LDV to a tree (can't imagine anyone stealing a tree),
  • a gay hairdresser who works from home, and whose clients take up most of the parking in the street during the day (including my space),
  • a pensioner who sweeps the very same square meter of road in front of his driveway all day long - in his pyjamas and slippers,
  • a woman who walks to the corner cafe in her pyjamas and socks holding a cup of coffee every morning (and now has her teenage daughter doing the same),
  • a Muslim family,
  • a Christian fundamentalist who persists in putting religious pamphlets in everybody's mailboxes at least once a week,
  • a houseful of Mormons,
  • A Black pastor and his family,
  • a guy who has regularly been seen going from door to door to steal the black bags left by the municipality,
  • a few straight prudes who on a few occasions dropped some anonymous hate mail in my inbox (oh well, at least there wasn't a carrot yet),
  • some gothic or emo students,
  • the supermarket owner whose shop across the road never has anything I am looking for when I need it,
  • a woman suspected of conducting nocturnal affairs for business purposes while working from the samepremises as a hairdresser by day.
  • a guy I suspect of stealing my celphone out of my car on women's day 2006
  • a guy who spends most of his day working in his open garage, and livens things up by circulating gossip between everyone who stops to chat and is called the "CNN" of my neighborhood.
(Any similarities to any actual persons are of course, purely co-incidental.)

Yes, I live in a long street. a long street. It doesnt mean because I may dislike any of these people or their beliefs or "lifestyles" which may clash with mine - or how much they may piss me off - that I need to rush off to join a campaign to take away their civil liberties or try to turn them into criminals. It does me no harm to live beside them or to even talk to them in passing. Sometimes they call on you for help with little things - or even help me when I least expect it. All it takes is a little kindness, tolerance and understanding. Learn more about each other, find out why people do the things they do. Knowledge brings understanding. Ignorance breeds contempt.

My father, who for his many flaws was still blessed with a modicum of wisdom, often said:

"civility costs nothing".

What does that mean? It means that even if I don't like what party you vote for, what language you speak, what car you drive, how you smell, what gender or color you are or prefer to sleep with, or how rich or poor you may seem - there is no need for me to be nasty, rude or unreasonable. It costs me nothing to be civil to people who displease me, and even to be friendly. My poor father, who was often on the receiving end of much derogation because he was an alcoholic, also said:

"a man can be generous, even in anger"

- which to me means that though I can be angered by the sheer intolerance shown to all sorts of people, myself included - I need not campaign to take away the civil rights of my attackers in return for their attempts to take away mine.

I need only oppose that which they intend to inflict upon me and those like me, and that will be enough.

It is a shame that some of the most prominent figures in the fight against human rights and equality, who seem to be quite learned and intelligent people - revered for many of their personal attributes, including presumably their Christian faith - do not display the wisdom, kindness and humanity - and dare I say it - Christianity - of one ordinary man who happened to be an outcast most of his adult life simply because he could not put down his glass.

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