Civility and Humor, Birds of a Feather: Chautauqua II

There's more to civility than good manners, but good manners aren't a bad place to start. (Photo by superhua at Flickr)

Yes, Chautauqua was terrific. The audience was lovely, and “lovely” isn’t a word I use about every audience: They were responsive, cheerful, eager, and engaged.

You could tell they were engaged by the fact that they showed up on a gorgeous summer afternoon to hear a lecture at the Hall of Philosophy. Mind you, The Hall of Philosophy is this extravagant outdoor structure, cool and breezy–and besides, many of the audience members brought their own reclining chairs and sat in the sun while they listened.

Nevertheless,  the 600 or so souls who showed up are evidence of  just how keen many of us are to be part of a conversation about civility and changes in American culture.

The fact that they invited a speaker whose most recent book has the words “panty lines” in the title and whose next book is called Make Mine a Double: Why Women Like Us Like to Drink showed real courage.

I’ll be honest: It took some tap dancing on my part to figure out how to address the issues of humor and civility in the same breath. But I decided that both are, finally, about telling the truth–even if it means telling it at a slant–and that both are about the importance of authentic interaction between those who are willing to consider their opponent equal, respectable, and sharp enough to get the point.

Recognizing that someone who holds ideas different from your own is not necessarily an opponent is essential to both civil discourse and humor.

Our new method of intellectual debate–a.k.a.: “Immediate Polarization”–isn’t conducive to such recognitions of shared humanity, however.

It’s more like an old cowboy movie where somebody says, “There ain’t room enough in this town for both of our principles, pardner, so I’m gonna have to prove you just don’t have any.”

Part of the reason we need a new discussion about civility is that the very term has become misappropriated by those who would reduce civility merely to manners. It’s scary to think the lords and ladies of civility are the folks Jo from Little Women would have called “ninny-piminy chits”: people who measure goodness in oyster forks just as they measure their lives in coffee spoons.

I’m all for the broader (big surprise) way of looking at civility: as a part of citizenship. Let the “civil” come and the “ization” will follow; let humor lead to a greater sense of humanity. It’s not about fanaticism or self-righteousness; it’s not about treating everybody as either your enemy or you ally.

You shouldn’t play to an audience constructed only of your family members or people who owe you money.  And you can’t play to an audience who hates you because they’ll, umm, leave or destroy you.

If we lose the ability to deal with a mixed crowd, we’ll lose the best conversations in the world. And we’ll end up losing the best parts of ourselves, too.  We’ll end up throwing rotten tomatoes from a darkened auditorium, making nasty comments on various blogs under clever aliases,  or shouting  out “You LIE!” at the President while he’s making a speech.

None of these are civil responses.

But civility is not about sitting down and shutting up, either. Nor is it about repression. It’s about community and strengthening that community through the exchange of ideas, responses, and perspectives.

And, like civility, humor  depends on a certain amount of shared territory–otherwise it wouldn’t work at all. Both need a certain amount of willingness to  immerse oneself, a certain level of risk-taking (since you risk being rebuffed and rejected when employing either), and a belief that the greatest pleasure and the greatest good can come from playing well with others.

Others have given it grander names, but the idea is the same.

What do you think, dear readers? What’s your definition of civility and how and where does it overlap with humor?




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