Recent events in the United States have been of great concern to us. Though the systems of democracy have remained intact, the events that have led to the presidential inauguration have demonstrated the fragility of democracy as a system of politics. The world has nervously awaited the peaceful resolution of the transition of power, recognising that such cannot be simply taken for granted. The flaws in the system have become all too exposed.
Whatever of our own personal politics and how we may have viewed the outcome of the American election, all of us hope for a future known for its measurement and order. And the key to this in democratic society is the virtue of civility. As the new President proposed in his inauguration speech,
“We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors.
We can treat each other with dignity and respect.
We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature.
For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury.
No progress, only exhausting outrage.
No nation, only a state of chaos . . .
We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.
We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.
If we show a little tolerance and humility.
If we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes just for a moment.”
Chatswood, Australia is a long way from Washington DC. However, the same call given in the United States has every application to us, too, particularly as we celebrate our own national day. As other places in the world today, we face enormous problems as we begin this year and on this particular day of national commemoration. Though thankfully the pandemic is greatly contained in our own country, the emotional and financial cost of this last twelve months is still to be calculated. Many continue to face a year of enormous uncertainty. And in the face of this, there is always a temptation to retreat into a hostile defensiveness towards each other.
Writing in The Australian yesterday, Jennifer Oriel, adroitly observed that in the face of the challenges before us we are in danger of losing the art of civility. She observes this in sport:
“Tennis and cricket players once embodied the elite sportsmanship that was the envy of lesser mortals. The greatness of sport was reflected not only in superior athleticism, but a culture in which etiquette and self-restraint were norms. Good manners were maintained under pressure in conditions most might find intolerable. It was the combination of unnatural vigour and extraordinary mastery of emotions that separated the good form the great in sport. That was then.”
This Oriel observes is a reflection, however, of a wider ‘debasement of culture’ in which we see,
“an erosion of basic etiquette and good manners, the rules for social interaction that make it more pleasurable. Bad manners have the opposite effect. Each of us can recount instances of people reading their phones during a conversation or having a heated argument in public. There is the daily storm of anti-social media where amateur trolls compete with common misanthropes to be the gossip most foul. There are numerous banks and telecommunication companies that spend millions on social justice PR while ignoring the basic needs of their customers. And there is the institutionalised contempt for civility found in the organised suppression of dissent.”
And so, she concludes,
“Good manners sustain the interpersonal civility so vital to democratic societies. In the days of wrath, anger is a powerful temptation. In the days of old, when the Earth was young and full of hope, the ancients’ cure for wrath was patience.”
This is the very perspective at the heart of Pope Francis’ vision of a new social and political order, the attributes that he enunciated in his Encyclical last year, “Fratelli Tutti, On Fraternity and Social Friendship. As he writes in Chapter 6:
“Consumerist individualism has led to great injustice. Other persons come to be viewed simply as obstacles to our own serene existence; we end up treating them as annoyances and we become increasingly aggressive. This is even more the case in times of crisis, catastrophe and hardship, when we are tempted to think in terms of the old saying, “every man for himself”. Yet even then, we can choose to cultivate kindness. Those who do so become stars shining in the midst of darkness.
Saint Paul describes kindness as a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22). He uses the Greek word chrestótes, which describes an attitude that is gentle, pleasant and supportive, not rude or coarse. Individuals who possess this quality help make other people’s lives more bearable, especially by sharing the weight of their problems, needs and fears. This way of treating others can take different forms: an act of kindness, a concern not to offend by word or deed, a readiness to alleviate their burdens. It involves “speaking words of comfort, strength, consolation and encouragement” and not “words that demean, sadden, anger or show scorn”.
Kindness frees us from the cruelty that at times infects human relationships, from the anxiety that prevents us from thinking of others, from the frantic flurry of activity that forgets that others also have a right to be happy. Often nowadays we find neither the time nor the energy to stop and be kind to others, to say “excuse me”, “pardon me”, “thank you”. Yet every now and then, miraculously, a kind person appears and is willing to set everything else aside in order to show interest, to give the gift of a smile, to speak a word of encouragement, to listen amid general indifference. If we make a daily effort to do exactly this, we can create a healthy social atmosphere in which misunderstandings can be overcome and conflict forestalled. Kindness ought to be cultivated; it is no superficial bourgeois virtue. Precisely because it entails esteem and respect for others, once kindness becomes a culture within society it transforms lifestyles, relationships and the ways ideas are discussed and compared. Kindness facilitates the quest for consensus; it opens new paths where hostility and conflict would burn all bridges.”
This Australia Day, in the midst of the pandemic in which we are engulfed, as we take such fragile steps into the new year, let us commit ourselves to this culture of encounter, as Pope Francis, terms it. Let us hold true to an openness and humility of mind and spirit from which all good societies grow. In this way, Australia will advance, truly.
 Joseph R Biden, Inauguration Speech, 20 January 2021, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/read-joe-bidens-full-inaugural-address-end-uncivil/story?id=75351694
 Jennifer Oriel, “Loss of civility is debasing the West,” The Australian, 25 January 2021.
 Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, “On Fraternity and Social Friendship” (3 October, 2020), n. 222-224.
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