Civility Revisited

We have to be able to revisit and revise our beliefs as we move through this world, or else we’d get stuck. Something may seem right at 25 or wise at 35 or important at 45 – but may later appear to be a folly of youth! A year ago, as I worked on a project of writing about each of the 30 variations that make up Bach’s Goldberg Variations, I chose to attach the idea of “civility” to one particularly genteel movement.  The music is utterly pleasant and without drama, and that apparently fit my definition of civility at the time.

Yet, I chose a photo to accompany that posting which I had taken in Cape Town several years earlier – a photo of a photo, actually, that showed Archbishop Desmond Tutu standing in front of a photo of Nelson Mandela. I knew even then, I guess, that civility could not be equated with politeness, and certainly not with meekness. Nor can our polite selves serve as a veneer over our inactions or subtle cruelties. With unfailing civility Tutu and Mandela stood up to injustice, but their actions were not meek. Not by a long shot.

It was a Washington Post column several weeks ago, ‘Civility’ vs ‘hysteria’ that woke me up to the fact that injustice is uncivil, and reminded me that confronting wrong requires civil disobedience. Civility is sometimes loud, and sometimes listening. Sometimes tenacious and other times forgiving. It pays attention to those who are hurt as much as it attempts to understand those that do the hurting. It’s so much more than Bach’s sweet 18th Goldberg variation implies. Civility, I’ve learned, requires something more nuanced – and though Bach’s music has plenty of places to look, perhaps I’ll go to Beehoven this time. Not thought of as a model of civility in either his personal or musical style, this elegy was written for someone he undoubtedly loved from afar for many years. Complicated feelings expressed in a civil package of string quartet and chorus:



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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.


3 thoughts on “Civility Revisited

    1. How nice of you to be in touch. I’m still living and working in DC. Thanks for your good wishes. I’ve just returned, btw, from seeing our mutual friend Jenna (Jenny to me). I hope all is well with you.


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