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Radical Civility, Taiwanese Style

RadicalCivility.jpgWhen I started my Radical Civility campaign last summer I didn't think about whether civility was an area of academic study. I love academics, but they tend to exist in a parallel universe, not in the real world. And the real world is where I ride the subway, see movies, eat at restaurants--all the places we encounter rude behavior.

But it turns out there is quite a robust body of research on civility, especially how it relates to the functioning of society. Not long ago I received a paper from David Schak, a professor of Asian studies at Australia's Griffith University. Titled "The Development of Civility in Taiwan" and published in Pacific Affairs (Vol. 82, No. 3, Fall 2009), the paper provides a nice overview of what might be called "civility studies."

Of course, when you think "Taiwan" you might not instantly think "civility." And Dr. Schak admits that right up front, writing: "The most common image of Taiwan on Western television—legislators abusing, fighting with and even throwing things at each other—would hardly support the contention of this article, that Taiwan is developing a society marked by increasing civility."

He's referring to incidents such as this one. And these ones.

Despite such outbursts, Dr. Schak argues that as Taiwan has become more democratic, it has become more civil. I can't say whether that's the case, but I was fascinated by the bigger picture of how civility first emerges. As it turns out, the first thing you need for civility is strangers.

Think about it: When you know every single person you encounter--when they're members of your family, or are people you see every day as you visit the village well or go on the village buffalo hunt--you don't have to be civil to them. Yes, you should be nice--or not, depending on the circumstances. But your behavior is built upon an existing foundation. You share so much that you don't have to call upon an external set of loosely agreed-upon social mores. That's what civility is.

As Dr. Schak writes: "The inclusion of strangers as members of the same moral universe is a profound change for a society emerging from traditional agrarianism to modernity." Furthermore, "In its earliest uses, civility denoted an attitude subordinating the interests
of individuals, groups or communities to those of society as a whole."

He writes that for civility to exist in a society the following conditions must be met:

First, people must trust one another and trust that civility will be met with civility, not with rudeness or being taken advantage of. Fair play must be the operative modus vivendi. Second, people must have a sense of personal and material security. Lack of the former is antithetical to trust; lack of the latter is likely to produce zero-sum competition which will erode trust.

It's all well and good to say that everyone should play fair, but the problem with that is that once a few people start playing foul, it makes the fair-players wonder why they're being so darn good. It only gets them walked on. Here is where the state can help and it's how, Dr. Schak argues, Taiwan started turning things around--using both carrots and sticks.

Take the case of Taipei's mayor, Chen Sui-bian. When he took office in the 1990s he ordered that the district offices that provide social services be redesigned. Counters were replaced by desks, so people seeking services wouldn't feel like second-class citizens. Rather than wait in line, people get a number and then wait. "Magazines, newspapers, tables for preparing paperwork, photocopy machines, reading glasses and even facilities for children to play are available." Tea is offered.

As for the stick, Chen ordered that the city's traffic laws be more strictly enforced, "in particular those governing parking, red lights, pedestrian crosswalks and turning at intersections."

The implication, I guess, is that as society seemed more civil--the DMV more humane, red-light runners punished--it actually got more civil.

Now, zero-tolerance isn't enough. I'm sure Berlin in 1939 seemed civil, as does Singapore today. An authoritarian government isn't going to make people feel like they have to be nice to each other. But enforcing some rules probably helps.

I thought of this when I read the story from earlier this week that D.C.'s handheld-cell-phone-while-driving ban has had an effect. Issuing 7,519 warnings and 12,936 tickets in the District last year reduced the number of people who would otherwise use a cell phone while driving, argue the authors of a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

We can never go back to being a stranger-free, agrarian society. That means we have to be civil. And that means recognizing that society works best when we think of other people, for the upside to that is that those other people will be thinking about us.

By John Kelly  |  October 15, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Radical Civility  
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