December 10, 2004

The Politics of Civility

The other day, quite by chance, I picked up a book I had forgotten I had. It was by Bill Stumpf , who, among other things, was co-designer of the Aeron chair . When I had first got the book, "The Ice Palace That Melted Away: How Good Design Enhances Our Lives" , I was disappointed if not dismissive. I had bought the book, because I wanted to find out more about his approach to design, particularly the way he used research to inform what he did. There was nothing of that there.

What was there was a plea for civility:

"Civility is the something extra - the added measure of grace - in the way we shape human behavior through objects and custom. Civility is comfort, hidden goodness, social lubricant, personal worth, helping others, play - civility is the joy we take in human achievements and the compassion we show to all-too-human faults. Civility can be extended by technology and can be obliterated by it. Civility is toleration, understanding. It is the integration of differences, not the heightening of them."

Reading this again with fresh eyes and a different set of pre-occupations, it struck me that Bill Stumpf was on to something very important.

If we look at the politics that really seems to engage many people today, it tends to fall in the category of protest - against globalisation, against big corporates, against the destruction of the environment and so on. There is a lot going on, but on the whole it seems a bit incoherent and often ineffectual. The machine rolls on despite the protests. It is a politics of resistance and as such is perceived as negative. We know what people are against, but we don't know what they are for.

But, if you look more closely, what seems to unite many of these protests is that they are against assaults on civility. If we were able to reframe these issues in terms of civility and move on from a posture of resistance to one of positively seeking to extend, "the added measure of grace - in the way we shape human behavior through objects and custom", we might have the basis for a new politics that would have a wide popular appeal.

Posted by richard at December 10, 2004 6:28 PM