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How Many Rules Do We Need?

Forni, P.M. Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002.

[An Installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

Society and culture are changeable; they are responsive to our choices and practices. This is one of the shared implications of the social constructionist paradigm and of virtue ethics. It’s ironic that the advocates of social constructionism and the advocates of virtue ethics tend to see themselves as ideological opponents, when they are all convinced believers in the Aristotelian axiom “we are what we repeatedly do.”

I suspect the late P.M. Forni, author of Choosing Civility, was a virtue ethicist. His short, gentle, but ultimately rigorous textbook on civilized living certainly springs from the conviction that people can choose their way of life, and that their choices matter, for themselves, and for the people around them.

Cover of Choosing Civility The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct by PM Forni

But his argument and his advice will appeal to social constructionists, too. We can change the world – from where we are, right here and right now, one act of civility at a time.

Which means, I’m afraid, that the message of Forni’s book is that we are responsible for the state of the world. Choosing Civility is, among other things, an extended argument for personal responsibility.

It is not, importantly, an argument for our responsibility for “winning” in the game of life. In fact, one of Forni’s concluding comments is that the two messages that “surround us wherever we are, 24 hours a day” in the United States, the messages that “you can achieve all that you want” and that “what matters in life is to win” are both unrealistic, and in important ways destructive of community. If “achievement” is all-important, especially if “achievement” is equated with the personal achievement of fame or holding a prominent position or making lots of money, it sets people up to experience even excellence in relative obscurity as failure. If “winning” is all that matters, “you may think nothing of crushing others on your way to victory” (177). These attitudes, along with the frustration, bitterness and rage they drag in their train, make losers of everyone.

Forni’s plea is for a less self-absorbed, more other-regarding mode of life. The world will be different and better, in his view, if we focus consistently on “how we play the game,” and aim at a high standard of civility in our daily lives. Because we and our chosen behavior constitute the environment for those around us – partly, at least – making the consistent choice for civility whenever we can already changes the world, at least locally, at least momentarily. Moreover, as the rabbis say, each person is a whole world. The choice for civility changes that world profoundly, too.

Civility – the public face of kindness – is the true “rising tide that lifts all boats.”

Forni offers, along with his twenty-five rules, an analysis of why people in the United States today seem increasingly unable or unwilling to follow them. The downward spiral seems to him to be propelled by Americans’ discomfort with formality, “the niceties,” and with the habit of equating manners with dishonesty, and blunt rudeness with freedom or truth-telling. We have confused the substance of freedom with certain outward forms, he suggests. He commends making a different, better use of our freedom, rather than becoming prisoners of our indifference to the simple well-being of those around us.

The very root of the word “civility” is the Latin word for city, civitas. Freedom, in the life of a city where we live in close proximity with others, and often anonymous others at that, cannot be the absolute freedom of “don’t fence me in.” It will inevitably be regulated by the presence and activity of others. But this means that freedom can either be regulated by the dynamics of pushing and shoving, of butting in line and “taking care of number one,” or by respect for the needs and comfort of our neighbors along with our own.

The gracious vision of freedom Forni shares is genuinely a matter of loving our neighbors as ourselves – or at least of treating our neighbors as human beings. At one point, Forni quotes George Bernard Shaw:

The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners or any other particular sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls: in short, behaving as if you were in heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another (54).

The citizens of the City of God on pilgrimage in the world, in other words, ought to be models of civility.

Twenty-five rules seems like a lot of rules to remember. Some seem clearly more foundational than others (“pay attention,” “think the best”) and the number of rules that begin with the word “respect” (“respect even a subtle ‘no,’” “respect others’ opinions,” “respect other people’s time,” “respect other people’s space,” “respect the environment”) is probably significant – especially since some of the other rules could probably have been phrased in terms of respect as well. “Avoid personal questions,” for instance, could be phrased “respect other people’s privacy,” and “don’t shift responsibility and blame” could be titled “respect the truth.”

But those of us who have fallen out of practice in civility probably need the detail Forni’s twenty-five rules provide. We probably need to be reminded that “respect others” means something as practical as “think twice before asking for favors” and as demanding as “listen.” It is probably too abstract to remind us “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12) – even though that’s what Forni’s civility boils down to.

In short, this is a wise and welcome book, though I was a little sad that I felt I benefited from reading it. Still – it gave me renewed hope for changing the world.

interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library
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