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Teshome Abebe ( source : radaris)

Teshome Abebe*

This piece is collected from a variety of sources and is also based on prior leadership encounters and experiences. It is presented here as a meager contribution to the civic good and without pretense of expertise. The interpretations and errors, if any, are my own.

Civility is in danger of dying in Ethiopia, yet vigilant minds can also observe that individual politeness is thriving. A paradox?

In its basic sense, civility is defined as formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech. In its broadest sense, civility implies that there is reason, there is method, and there is purpose to it. In this sense, civility is aspirational because it is done to preserve to the greatest extent possible the principle of public deliberation in the service of the civic good. In the age of mass communication, everything has turned into mass talk that cannot be truly controlled. Everything that one says, and how they say it is mass communicated one minute and overtaken by another form of expression more popular and more exaggerated, more upsetting, more jarring or even more outrageous the next. And when public officials ignore their role and become outrageous in their expressions, the Rubicon (not the river) is crossed to more and exasperating outrageousness by everyone, and civility is permanently replaced by coarseness and even vulgarity.

I am not just referring here to politeness when I write about civility. Politeness is etiquette-related, whereas civility is “…respect for the collective traditions of a {society}”. Civility is broader in that it also includes interactions that promote democratic goals. Experts in the field have noted that the foundation for civility is consciousness, creativity, and community. Hinckley (2000), for example, states that civility has five characteristics that include, courtesy, politeness, consideration, gentility, and respect.

The Elegance of Civility:

Civility, often seen as the graceful art of polite behavior, is a timeless virtue that underpins the very fabric of civilized societies. It is a set of social norms and practices that guide our interactions with others, reflecting respect, courtesy, and consideration. Civility rests upon a foundation of empathy and mutual respect. It acknowledges the intrinsic worth and dignity of every individual, regardless of their background, beliefs or social status. This foundation recognizes that the strength of society lies in the ability of its members to engage in harmonious discourse, even when they disagree.

This essay explores the foundations, requirements, characteristics, and value of civility, while also delving into the dire consequences of a society that has lost its civility. This is followed by an outline of the ripple effects of uncivil leadership—a concern all too familiar in distressed societies.

The Requirements of Civility

The first requirement of civility is respectful dialogue: Civility demands that individuals engage in conversations marked by respect, active listening, and an open-minded willingness to consider opposing viewpoints. It requires refraining from personal attacks and instead focusing on the substance of the argument.

The second is tolerance: A civil society embraces diversity and tolerates differences of opinion. It understands that a multitude of perspectives enriches that tapestry of human existence and fosters an environment where people can coexist peacefully.

The third is empathy: To be civil is to empathize with others, striving to understand their feelings and viewpoints. This empathy serves as a bridge for communication and fosters compassion and cooperation.

In the category of well understood characteristics of civility are, therefore, politeness, patience, and kindness.

What are the Values of Civility?

It goes without saying that civility holds immense value for both individuals and society as a whole. For individuals, practicing civility fosters respectful and positive interactions with others, leading to better relationships, improved mental well-being, and reduced conflicts. It promotes empathy, active listening, and open-mindedness, enhancing personal growth and social skills.

In society, civility is essential for maintaining a harmonious and functional community. It contributes to social cohesion, cooperation, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. Civil societies are more likely to uphold democratic principles, human rights, and equality, ultimately leading to greater stability and collective progress.

Overall, then, civility plays a crucial role in fostering a healthier and more inclusive society while benefiting individuals by promoting better interpersonal relationships and personal development. Crucially, the following can be observed in all civil societies:

  1. Social Harmony: A civil society is characterized by social harmony and reduced conflicts. When people treat each other with respect and courtesy, tensions are less likely to escalate into violence or hostility.
  2. Effective Communication: Civility enhances communication, enabling the exchange of ideas and the negotiation of differences. In a civil society, problems are addressed constructively, fostering progress and innovation.
  3. Trust and Unity: Trust is the cornerstone of strong communities. Civility builds trust among individuals and institutions, leading to greater unity and cooperation.

What is the Impact of Lost Civility?

When a society loses its civility, dire consequences ensue, and they are:

  1. Polarization: Lack of civility fosters polarization, where individuals and groups become entrenched in their beliefs, refusing to engage in productive dialogue. This exacerbates social divisions.
  2. Decline in Social Cohesion: A society marked by rudeness and disrespect experiences a decline in social cohesion, as people retreat into isolated factions, eroding the bonds that hold communities together.
  3. Deterioration of Institutions: Institutions that are no longer governed by civility risk becoming dysfunctional and ineffective, as cooperation and trust erode.
  4. Erosion of Democracy: Democracy, where it exists, relies on civil discourse and respectful disagreement. Without civility, democratic institutions suffer, and the very foundations of democracy are threatened.

Civility, rooted in respect, empathy, and courtesy, is the cornerstone of a thriving and harmonious society. It fosters effective communication, unity, and trust. Conversely, a society that loses its civility risks polarization, declining social cohesion, and the erosion of democratic values. As a consequence, the preservation and promotion of civility is essential for the well-being and progress of communities and states.

The Ripple Effects and Consequences of Uncivil Leadership

Leadership, by its very nature, sets the tone for society. When leaders exhibit incivility or lack of civility, it reverberates throughout the entire social fabric. The following paragraphs explore the profound consequences of uncivil leadership on society, and include:

  1. Normalization of Incivility: Leaders serve as role models, and their behavior is often emulated by their followers. When leaders engage in uncivil conduct, such behavior becomes normalized, permeating society at large. This normalization erodes the fundamental principles of respect and courtesy.
  2. Polarization and Divisiveness: Uncivil leaders tend to fuel polarization by using inflammatory language and promoting an “us versus them” mentality. This exacerbates social divisions and hinders productive dialogue and cooperation.
  3. Loss of Trust and Confidence: Trust is the cornerstone of effective leadership. When leaders are uncivil, trust in institutions and authority figures diminishes. This erosion of trust can lead to societal disillusionment and a breakdown in the social contract.
  4. Undermining Democratic Values: Uncivil leaders may use their positions to undermine democratic norms and institutions, eroding the foundations of democracy itself. This can lead to authoritarian tendencies and a disregard for the rule of law.
  5. Erosion of Diplomacy and International Relations: Uncivil leadership on the global stage can lead to strained international relations and hinder diplomatic efforts. Diplomacy relies on respectful communication, and a lack thereof can lead to conflicts and instability.

Uncivil leadership has far-reaching consequences that affect the very core of society. It normalizes incivility, fuels polarization, erodes trust, undermines democracy where it exists, and disrupts international relations. To address this issue, it is imperative for citizens, institutions and the media to actively promote and uphold the values of civility. You cannot have a civil society where leadership doesn’t set a positive example for all to follow.

I began this short essay by asking if civility has died in Ethiopia. Given the paradoxical nature of observed behavior, I am ambivalent on how to sum up my message. Whatever else holds about the social order, however, it is reasonable to conclude that given all the positive attributes of civility, we prefer it more than vulgarity. We value individual civility because it separates us from those who are uncivil; yet incivility may at times be celebrated because it helps garner temporary support for the truly beleaguered! In the end, it is important to realize that the human capacity to be civil, vulgar, truthful or liar stands at the heart of society’s manners, norms and culture.

*Teshome Abebe, a former Provost at two institutions is currently Professor of Economics.

Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of


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