Civility Redefined

RAJGOPAL NIDAMBOOR

It would be too superfluous to say that the cause of civility enjoys token lip-service. In fact, impoliteness, or rudeness, has become a badge of individual growth. Get into the first-class compartment of any Mumbai local train, and you will know. You have smart, tie-sporting, sweaty executives, and most wear more than a sheen of arrogance — the ‘we’ve-beaten-the-world’ gloss.

What next? Well, well, well, although no one says that the fight for civility is lost. Because, we’ve been bogged down by an abrasive, a sort of in-your-face, hostility that prevails from the boardroom to the inter-state highway? Hold your breath. For the simple reason that some sense of reserve, on the part of the mannered, is understandable.

Richard Brookhiser’s Rules of Civility [Free Press], celebrates George Washington’s greatness, and brings home the legend’s greatness like no other inspirational work: of rules which address not only the proper ways of civil life, but also of a morally responsible life. The book embellishes 110 precepts that guided America’s first President in war and peace. Washington, as a matter of fact, dutifully copied the rules — as a schoolboy. He was, understandably, wise. He kept them with him all his life.

Although Washington was a self-contained figure, well known for his ferocious temper, it goes without saying that most of his own rules may have helped him to rein in his furies. For instance: “In reproving, show no sign of choler,” and “When you deliver a matter, do it without passion.”

Or, take a look at Washington’s true greatness too — something that flowed, in part, from his high regard for a civilised code of behaviour. Rule 1: “Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present.” Rule 110: “Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

Agreed, that, a host of these rules maybe quaint irrelevancies today, for many, but surely not for everybody on the living planet. Because, some of the rules — more so, those related to table manners — don’t change? You bet. They apply as practically now as they did in Washington’s time, except that a Laloo Prasad Yadav would most likely scoff at some of the rules Washington jotted down in his notebook:

  • Cleanse not your teeth with the table-cloth
  • Rinse not your mouth in the presence of others
  • Do not laugh too loud, or too much at a public spectacle
  • Spit not into the fire
  • Put not off your clothes in the presence of others
  • Don’t scratch your privates in public
  • When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body not usually discovered.

All these rules will be violated by the time you are through reading them, especially in as stressful and uncivil a time as we live in today — when people expose their navels and neuroses on tacky TV shows, cricketers swear at umpires, and celebrities rap cameramen.

So, we do need more rules to live by. Here are a few, culled by courtesy of a fellow reviewer — all rules for civility in day-to-day life, modified to the times, and for others’ convenience.

  • Use not the cell phone in a public place
  • Never keep your ‘phone line on hold without apologising profusely
  • Don’t spread your stuff over the empty seat next to you on the bus/train/airplane
  • Keep your cold to yourself. Don’t spread it around
  • When on an airplane/bus/movies, remember one thing. Only one armrest is yours
  • If you want to mess up your life, just do it. But, not at someone else’s expense
  • If you must wear not-too-decent clothes, don’t look at yourself in the mirror. Or, if you would rather be civil to yourself
  • Never ever play a dirty trick on your colleague, or employee, and ‘rob’ them of their job — to gain that derelict ‘mileage’ points
  • When in the train/bus/movies, move your legs so others may pass in front of you without ‘stamping’ your feet
  • Don’t yell at the TV. The people on the screen cannot hear you
  • Let not your child run amuck.

So, there you are — with something or the other to suit your temperament and personality. Or, maybe, you could do something better. Just add on a few more ‘novel’ rules to the list. The more, the merrier.