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Personally Speaking/A Lesson in Civility

I keep a copy of the college’s Civility Statement on my desk, and its words serve as a continuing summons. I am generally very civil, but I am not always radically hospitable. I oppose intolerance, but usually from a safe distance. Quite frankly, I would rather not be attacked by bullies myself. 

But this year, I have been challenged to go further. The adoption of our statement coincided with another new initiative on campus, a focus for our programming around a single significant idea. With the contentious atmosphere of a presidential election looming, we chose civility as our theme for 2012-13. I have enjoyed a front-row seat for many of the programs connected to this concept, and I have had ample opportunity to reflect on our understanding and practice of this virtue. 

As many have recognized, the notion of civility itself is not without its problems. For instance, it arguably offers too small a vision. Like tolerance, it may suggest little more than begrudging acceptance – a polite distance in place of genuine understanding or appreciation. More insidiously, privileged groups and individuals may call for civility as a way to quiet justifiable protest. Marginalized persons, raising their voices against systemic indifference, are reminded to “play nice,” to follow established codes of conduct and discourse that often favor those already in power. 

When the plea for civility is used to silence voices, stifle understanding and inhibit necessary change, it is in reality “uncivil.” And when others of us see that happening, but choose to remain silent, our polite embrace of civility simply veils our cowardice.

A central Norbertine value is communio,and anybody who spends much time on campus will recognize the word. Communio calls us to mutual esteem, trust, sincerity, faith and responsibility. We take that charge seriously here, wanting it to shape the way we relate to one another as we articulate the concept afresh. It was in this spirit that the college adopted its new Civility Statement. Initially sponsored by the Student Government Association, it reads as a community pledge: 

Choosing to be part of the St. Norbert College community, I promise to: 

  • Respect the sacred dignity of all persons, including myself.
  • Live with integrity, acting consistently with my values and beliefs.
  • Communicate truthfully, with openness to diverse perspectives and experiences.
  • Practice radical hospitality, demonstrating concern for others and actively opposing intolerance.
  • Serve the world, understanding the needs around me and sharing myself in response.

In making this choice, I gladly honor the spirit of communio in word and action, pursuing my individual development and the common good while living as a responsible citizen of St. Norbert College and the world. 

This clearly calls us to something greater than mere public courtesy. It offers an expansive vision, welcoming the voices of fellow humans in such a way that they do not have to fight for a hearing. It calls us to actively oppose intolerance, not tacitly approve it through fear or indifference. 

My own copy of this challenging statement confronts me daily. It calls me to speak in primary colors and to act, if not fearlessly, then in spite of fear, especially on behalf of those on society’s margins. Such would be a move from civility back to communio, and indeed toward the common focus that we will be exploring next. For the coming academic year, our theme will be inspired by the abbatial motto of our founder: “Let us love one another.”

March 27, 2013

This article first appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of St. Norbert College Magazine. You can enjoy the magazine online and subscribe to print and/or online issues. Find us on Facebook, follow our blog, or subscribe for monthly e-mailed updates via @St. Norbert.