Tuesday, January 23, 2007


There was a thoughtful piece in Saturday's Times newspaper (20 January 2007) from Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, entitled A gentle reminder that soft answers can turn away wrath. He observes:

When did we lose the culture of civility? When did anger become a political weapon? When did the era of gentleness die, to be replaced with our current age of rage? One thing is certain: this is a dangerous development, and we must pull back from the brink.

Often the origin of words tells a story. “Civility” comes from the same root as civilian and civilisation. “Polite” has the same origin as politics and polity. “Urbane” derives from the same root as urban. All three come from Classical words meaning a city and its governance. Why so?

In antiquity, cities, especially those on the Mediterranean, were where people of different faiths and cultures came together to trade. They had to learn to trust one another. They had to develop an ethic that worked with strangers as well as friends. That is where civility was born.

What follows raises some interesting questions. I personally think we need deeper traditions than trade to offset the drift to war - the kind of alternative, deeply-rooted communities of civility of which Alisdair McIntyre speaks at the end of After Virtue, in fact. Commerce, by contrast, has sowed as many seeds of division as it has assuaged. (Hmmnn.... can you assuage a seed?) Anyway, it's a bad place to put too much faith. Similarly, I wouldn't blame everything on 'politicization'. This is often the charge of those who, in fact, have power. The question is not whether to engage in politics, but how and with what relationship to a lived recognition of the humanity and dignity of our imagined opponents as well as our supposed allies - noting that these divisions may prove to be more malleable and complex than tactics alone allows. (I suspect that Sacks would broadly concur with these points, while being more favourably disposed to the civic efficacy of markets than I am.)

Nonetheless, the problems that Sacks refers to are real - and cross the boundaries of religion and non-religion, too. Anyone who reads the feedback on The Guardian's Comment-is-Free will know that, sadly, some of the apostles of redemption through reason can be as belligerent, intolerant and exclusive as those they readily damn as possessing false faith. More than a few of the reactions to Inayat Bunglawala's Everything is illuminated, which seeks a bridge between Islam and Enlightenment, bear this out. The issue is not disagreement, it is bile, vitriol and what I call "the eliminative mentality": I can only be what I am by excluding what you are. Anyway the concluding comment by the Chief Rabbi is very apposite:

"A soft answer turns away wrath,” says the Book of Proverbs, “but a harsh word stirs up anger.” “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Verbal violence, the Bible suggests, is a prelude to physical violence. Those who cannot sustain a civil conversation will eventually find it impossible to sustain a civilisation.

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