Home Education CIVICS AND CIVILITY IN BRAZIL – Concepts and meanings

CIVICS AND CIVILITY IN BRAZIL – Concepts and meanings

Paul Vadas – Master Degree in Political Science, California State University, Northridge; Twenty years of experience in executive functions at Brazilian Higher Education Institutions, including: Director of the Executive Education Program at Universidade Anhembi Morumbi, São Paulo; Pro-Rector of Professional Education at Universidade Potiguar, Natal; President of UNEB College, Brasilia; Chief Executive Consultant at Vadas Educational Consulting. Lives in Temecula, California.


May 08, 2017

In the history of Brazilian education, the concepts of “civics”, “morality”, and “civility” have appeared as part of the curriculum on and off over the past centuries. But, even when we talk about these concepts as they apply to Brazil, we find that they have had different meanings depending on how they have been interpreted and used in the context of the times. When we talk about them in general, we can see that concepts, in term of their meanings, suffer all the effects of time, place, and culture and, therefore, we need to be very careful and make sure that we properly define them so that people understand what we are talking about the way we want them to understand it.

Before I proceed with my suggestions for civics and civility courses for the Brazilian middle school programs, I need to explain how differently the concepts of “civics”, “morality”, and “civility” are interpreted in one way in a democracy and in another in a dictatorship. However, right at the start I need to say that the explanations that follow, given the scope of this article, and the complexity of the concepts, are very simplistic and superficial. Nonetheless, the concepts need to be defined in terms of their diverse circumstantial meanings. You see, we are not just talking about civics, morality, and civility as clearly defined concepts. We are suggesting that they are understood differently not just in terms of time, place, and culture, but also in terms of their application in a democracy (a very loaded concept) vs their application in a dictatorship (another loaded concept), and how they are understood differently in homogeneous communities from pluralistic communities.

Civics, generally speaking, refers to 1) formal, codified rules of conduct (“politically” defined behavior), such as respect for the laws, rules, regulations, rights, and obligations, and 2) informal rules of conduct, such as respect and “proper” participation in habits, traditions, and customs (“culturally” defined behavior). From a “nations” point of view, civics is expressed in patriotic terms, where a person defines himself/herself as belonging to a certain nationality and identifies with the symbols of that nation: the flag, national anthem, monuments, culture, history, arts, values, etc.

In a dictatorship, civics emphasizes obedience to those in power, and civil society’s duties is to follow the behavioral dictates blindly, without questioning. Patriotism is defined as following the leader, he/she knows best. “My country right or wrong”; “my country love it or leave it”; “my country above all others”; etc., are manifestations of how civics is primarily defined in terms of duties and obligations and not in terms of freedoms and individual rights. Obeying the powers that be is the essence of civism in countries ruled by dictators.

In a true democracy, obedience to those in political power is secondary to individual rights and freedoms that are codified in laws (primarily the Constitution) and interpreted not by those who hold temporary power, but by a fair and enlightened, neutral and objective, judicial system. The citizenry not only periodically elects their leaders but also participates in the daily decision making process by constant dialogue with those who represent them in the political system. To do that, the citizenry must be aware of the issues and the politicians must be open to direct discussions in town meetings, and accountable for their actions. Civics is not expressed only at the ballot box. It is expressed daily, openly in discussions, debates, free expression of thoughts and ideas on how to change and improve life for members of the community, as well as on how to improve justice and access to education, healthcare, job opportunities, etc., for all.

Morality refers to how a community expresses its behavior, determines its values and principles and how it defines what is right from what is wrong, what is permissible from what is forbidden, whether by law (political) or by customs and traditions (cultural). Moral principals have emanated centuries ago in order to control the basic instincts of humans and ensure that individuals would behave in a more controlled manner in order to guarantee the survival of the community.

At first, moral principals were dictated mostly by Canon Law (religious laws) as codified and expressed in the Bible and the instructions of the Talmud, the teachings of the New Testament, as thought by Jesus Christ and his apostles, and of the Koran, as expressed by the Prophet Muhammad and his followers. Over the centuries, and especially starting with the Renaissance, canon law gave way to secular laws (politically determined laws) in a process whereby “God’s laws” were asserted, modified and or replaced by man-made laws and expressed in constitutions, civil and criminal laws, rules, and regulations. Acceptable and non-acceptable codes of conduct, such as gender discrimination, religious discrimination (sharia law), separate but equal, LGBT, dress codes, etc. change over time as different cultures interpret and evolve their thinking on what is right and what is wrong.

One of the aspects that influences moral principles in different societies is that the more traditional and homogeneous the society, the more difficult for moral principles to change over time. The more open, diverse and pluralistic the community, the easier for moral principles to evolve or, at least, for the community to accept different ways of conduct and co-exist with them.

Civility is defined by a combination of formal (political) and informal (cultural) codes of how individuals should treat each other in terms of their respective positions in the community (deference) as well as in how they communicate with each other in respectful manners.

Social conduct (the way one human being treats another human being), however, depends on “membership” – people who belong in the same society, treat each other according to the rules of conduct of that society. On the other hand, people from different societies tend to treat each other with distrust, with fear and, even, with right out hostility.

In many traditional, homogeneous cultures, to be civil is to be “civilized”. It is to be a “cultured” person, well educated in the civics, mores, and traditions of his/her society. And those who do not belong are considered to be either, ignorant, barbarians, savages, or lower forms of human beings, especially the slaves.

In more pluralistic cultures, civility is defined as how different people are able to treat those who are different with respect, tolerance, and comprehension.

To be civil with those who think the same way is easy. The challenge, in a pluralistic society, is to be civil with those who think radically differently – that is the greatest test of peaceful coexistence.

So, as we can see, even in a simplistic superficial way, the concepts of civics, morality, and civility can only be understood in terms of whether we are talking about dictatorships or democracies, homogeneous or pluralistic societies.

But it is not just politics (dictatorship vs. democracy) and culture (homogeneous vs. pluralistic) that affect civics, morality, and civility. The very nature of human beings has a profound role on personal and social behaviors.

The natural forces of identification that unites a people, are the same forces that divide peoples. Humans are naturally drawn to each other. Each person is born as a human and, slowly, acquires an identity. Although gender, color, and physical characteristics are assigned by nature (genetically), ethnicity, a person’s identification with a social group that shares the same traditions, language, religion, nationality, beliefs, etc., is a learned process, acquired during the socialization process. Humans are extremely conditionable and adaptable. They readily adhere to their groups through this process of conditioning to comply that starts at the very moment an infant is born and is assigned a name, a religion, a nationality, a language and a way of understanding and behaving in accordance to the moral codes thought by those around him.

At the same time that these natural forces of identification unite people into relatively cohesive groups and nations (the us), it divides groups from one another (the other). Moral principles define each group and separates it from other groups. Personal interests are expressed in common interests and each group fights to preserve their ways of life, and protect itself from the interests of the other groups.

Be it in personal, family identification, social group identification, national identification, business/professional identification, ethnical identification, gender identification, color identification, party affiliation, religious identification or, even, just rooting for a specific sports team, the power of identification can range from a mellow, co-existing force with the “us”, to a dramatic hatred of the “other”.

Radical indoctrination, fanaticism, and blind loyalty to charismatic leaders are the engines of hatred, divisiveness and lack of civility between groups and societies. Even the most civilized persons can become raging killers in times of war. When ideology transforms the fan into a fanatic and groups become entrenched into believing that they are the only truth, the “other” becomes the enemy to be defeated. Fanatic party affiliations, radical religious beliefs, ardent sports fans who root for certain teams, ignorance about the other, transforms civility into blind hatred and contributes to growing divisiveness and misunderstandings. With today’s technologies of instant communication news and fake news spread like wild fire, facilitating manipulation of the charismatic leaders and pitting good people against each other.

War can transform the most morally principled person into a hateful savage, murderer of people he does not even know. From the oldest civilizations of ancient times to our own times, as manifested by the two world wars, the Korean War, Viet-nan, Bosnia, Chechnya, and several other wars and conflicts all over the world, in every continent, including terrorist attacks, self-interest and extreme fanaticism and radicalism have pitted, and is pitting human beings one against the other proving that, in many ways, civism, as manifested in ardent jingoism, is incompatible with morality and civility

If civics in a dictatorship means blind obedience to the powers that be, in a true pluralistic democracy, civics requires critical thinking, capacity to debate and sustain one’s opinion, visioning for what ought to be, and the capacity to lead others in achieving those visions. True leaders inspire and motivate others to act for the benefit of all.

It is the highest duty of civism in a democracy to be an active participant with morality and civility. Adherence to high moral principles of justice, equal opportunity, non-discrimination, etc., may even mean peaceful civil disobedience to make sure that justice and truth prevails – these are the highest of moral principles in a free society, as MLK, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi, to name a few, have clearly proven. It is the civic duty of a citizen in a true democracy to actively participate, with civility, in the preservation of his/her rights and that of every other member of the community to make sure that those rights are preserved.

In a global society, where pluralism is a fact of life among and between humans, in terms of nationalities, the survival of humanity demands that diversity should be embraced and peaceful, respectful coexistence should be the norm. In the global context, although patriotism is a strong element in international relations, as each country pursues its own national interests, civics and civility have to be expressed in global terms: respect and tolerance of differences, understanding of the other, empathy for the plight of others. For, as President John F. Kennedy JFK expressed in his famous speech at the American University, in July of 1963:

Our problems are manmade—therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable—and we believe they can do it again…. So, let us not be blind to our differences—but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.

As Brazil, a democratic pluralistic society experiencing an acute civics, morality, and civility crisis, embarks on defining common curricula for basic education, civics, morality, and civility need to be an integral part of middle-school courses.

It’s in the middle schools that the young need to be prepared to transition from childhood into adulthood. As the student approach his/her eighteenth birthday and becomes, legally, an adult, it’s in that age range that the learnings of how to be (values, personality, character), how to relate (marriage, children, work relations, financial commitments – rights, duties and responsibilities, etc.), and how to fully participate in the political processes, with full awareness of how the systems work, that the young can be prepared not just for the act of voting but, for those so inclined, for daily participation in the political process as politicians. Schools need to teach about healthy patriotism (civics with morality and civility), the structure and functions of the political system, the meaning of political symbols (such is the Constitution, the flag, the statues, the national anthem, etc.), the heroes of the country and of the world, the history and traditions of the nation, as well as the national and the international models that can influence and motivate visionary leadership. A country without history, without heroes, without symbols, without models, without visionary leaders, and without an illuminated citizenry is a country without a soul and without a path to follow.