Civility remains a major problem

By Eddie A. Jones, AAC Consultant

Renowned actress Olivia De Havilland said, “It’s hard to keep on being civil when they ask you such annoying questions.”

It is sometimes hard to be civil, but it’s not impossible. In county government we should all be promoting the concepts and practice of civility in public meetings and our interactions with one another. Yes, your words and your communication style matter. Think before you speak.

My last County Lines article was about how to run a meeting the right way. In the last two paragraphs of that article I alluded to civility. In this article I will delve deeper into the ethic of civility — morally acceptable behavior towards fellow human beings.

I’ve heard it said that the people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions, and people who have strong convictions often lack civility. Although one might make a case for an element of truth in that statement, it does not have to be that way. First of all, who could be so shallow as to believe that their positions are 100 percent correct and that anyone who does not think and believe just as they do are 100 percent wrong? If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that we are not always correct about everything. No man nor woman alive today has the scope of knowledge and intelligence to know everything.

Even though government and politics is rough and tough, we are all human beings first and foremost. That is why it is so important for us to have civil dialogue. We are not all cut from the same cloth nor cast in the same mold. If we were, we could just let one person call all the shots, and we would all be hunky-dory.

But we are all different and have different ideas about how government should work. That’s why one person does not call all the shots. We have a Constitution in the United States that establishes a federal democratic republic form of government. The major difference between a democracy and a republic is that a republic is a form of government whereas a democracy is an ideology that helps shape how a government is run. Put another way: a republic is the system of government that allows a country to be democratic. All democracies are characterized by a shared ideology or system of beliefs. Democracies have four foundational characteristics: (1) free and fair elections; (2) citizen participation; (3) protection of citizen human rights; and (4) rule of law.

If elections are how citizens make their voices heard, then laws are the ways that citizens’ desires are enforced. Laws are a tool people can use to make sure ideals of democracy like freedom and basic human rights are maintained. Rule of law is the cornerstone of all democratic societies. And democracies begin to crack and crumble when there is a lack of civility.

From our flame-throwing politics to our ever-widening divisions on cultural hot-button issues, there’s plenty going on to get riled up about. A recent poll by Weber Shandwick Powell Tate finds that the vast majority of Americans — a whopping 93 percent — identify a civility problem with most classifying it as a major problem. Sixty-three percent of Americans say the impact of social media on civility has been more negative than positive. Fifty-four percent of Americans expect the general tone and level of civility in the country to decline even further during the next few years.

But there was some good news. Despite the unwavering sentiment that America has a civility problem in government and politics, a positive note is sounded on the general level of civility in the workplace. About 89 percent of Americans who work with others describe their place of employment as very or somewhat civil. A civil workplace affects job performance in positive ways. It will in government and politics, too, so we need to put it to use. Civil discourse is key to a healthy democracy.

Civility involves competing sets of “right” values: the value of free expression versus the value of respect for fellow participants in the democratic process. Critics have attributed the erosion of civility in society to the elevation of self-expression over self-control.

This is a fairly easy ethical dilemma to resolve insofar as it is possible to be both expressive and civil, and therefore maximize both values. There is an argument that more people will be inclined to participate in a public deliberative process that focuses on the merits and demerits of an issue, as opposed to focusing on personal attacks.

Civility refers to the way people treat each other with respect, even when they disagree. Even though disagreement and confrontation play a necessary role in government and politics, the issue is how that disagreement is expressed. The key is to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of proposed solutions to problems, not to engage in personal attacks against those who favor different solutions. Government’s inability to deal with a broad range of problems results from the destructive way in which issues are addressed.

There is a “reap-what-you-sow” element to our actions. If public officials themselves attack their fellow officeholders, who can blame the public for believing the attacks and engaging in the same kind of attacks? If personal attacks permeate the interactions of public officials, there is the significant risk that all participants will be tarred by the same brush. And many times the media “stokes the fires of negativity” by emphasizing such attacks in their coverage rather than the issue itself.

Weak as the case is, some make a case against civility. Some say civility just reinforces the status quo in terms of power relationships. Or that what really matters is not who is more civil, but who wins. That is very simplistic and caters to our flawed character as human. We can be and should be better than that.

The quest for civility has merit for public officials. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s observations are instructive: “In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words, and even hot insults; but when a whole people speaks to its government, the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government.”

King’s admonition to his listeners to set their standards of discourse high, irrespective of how others behave, is consistent with the quote from Gandhi, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Or as Mark Twain observed in “Pudd’nhead Wilson”: “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.” It may be annoying at times, but a good example helps pull the rest of us in line.

I don’t believe civility can be legislated any more than morality can be legislated. Laws can be enacted governing civility and morality, and people may pay the price for breaking those laws. But people make a choice to be civil or not just like they make a choice to be a moral or immoral person. I agree with the Greek philosopher Aristotle who believed that virtuous behavior had to be voluntary and that civility is a form of virtuous behavior.

Let me remind you what civility actually means. It’s sometimes defined as simply being polite. While it can refer to politeness, it’s much more than that. Civility comes from the Latin root civilis, meaning “befitting a citizen.” Civility is the baseline of respect we owe one another in public life.

So how do we achieve more civility in public discourse? Here are a few suggestions:

Separate people from the problem. Recognize that other thoughtful and caring people have different views on how best to address the problem. Focus on solutions that are most likely to be successful. Avoid resolving disputes on the basis of “us versus them” animosity and seek the relative merits of completing problem-solving strategies.

Obtain the facts. Many public policy disputes involve factual disagreements that are amenable to resolution through some type of fact-finding process. Work together to resolve factual disagreements wherever possible. There are, of course, times when separate studies have concluded “competing facts.” When this is true, contending parties need to publicly explain the reasoning behind their differing interpretation of the factual information that is available. That can be done in a civil manner.

Limit interpersonal misunderstandings. Make an honest and continuing effort to understand the views and reasoning of your opponents. As much as we want to believe that we are 100 percent correct about everything, we aren’t.

Use fair processes. Genuinely solicit and consider public input. Make decisions on the basis of substantive arguments.

Keep trying to persuade and allow yourself to be persuaded. One crucial element of civility is the recognition by conflicting parties that it is possible they are wrong and the policies advocated by their opponents are actually better. Seriously consider the persuasive arguments made by your opponents and explain your own position.

Another strategy for civility is to identify the biggest redeeming quality of that person who’s always driving you crazy. Keep it in mind the next time the two of you interact.

Before I close, I want to talk about one more thing — Gadflies. The connotation that comes with the term “gadfly” is not usually very becoming. But I want to look at them a little differently. Virtually every community has them: individuals who show up at every meeting to voice their complaints, often repetitiously and sometimes with a tenuous grip on reality and the facts. I don’t believe anyone has a magic solution to the problem that these individuals’ contributions to public meetings create, often by crowding out others who have more specific and constructive reasons for wanting to share their views with the state legislative committee, the quorum court, the city council, the school board, or any public government meeting.

In a book called “City Silly Hall,” written by City Manager Rich Holmer there is a chapter on gadflies. One particularly poignant account is of Jake, a longtime community resident who ultimately fell on hard times.

Here’s an excerpt:

As for Jake, we saw less and less of him [over the years]. His attendance at council and historical society meetings became less frequent. He looked withered and thinner, many times un-shaven, and wearing the same wool shirt. The chief had told me his officers had rousted him on more than one occasion for sleeping in the parks or in his truck.

It was a crisp December night and I had just exited early from a transit tax meeting. I began the 10-mile drive home [and]… Starbucks…beckoned to me. As the door closed behind me, I was taken aback to see Jake sitting at a table, newspapers covering its top, and a large cup of coffee sitting precariously at its edge. He looked up and our eyes met. I walked over and gave him an obligatory handshake. We exchanged small talk and he mentioned that the police chief should let people sleep in their automobiles. I said it was good seeing him. I excused myself to purchase coffee and started to pay the cashier when Jake rushed over and said he wanted to buy the coffee. I protested; here was a homeless person buying me a cup of coffee. It didn’t feel right but I stepped aside and said, “Thank you, Jake.” When I turned around, he was gone.

As I gazed out at the clear night sky, I remembered the second meaning of a gadfly: “A person who rouses you from complacency.” I knew I had been presented a precious gift that evening.

Gadflies undoubtedly have many different motivations. One theory is that there is a sense of personal importance and belonging that goes with their regular participation in public meetings. Another is that they truly believe there are wrongs that need to be righted and, of course, sometimes the gadflies are right.

The bottom line is that gadflies are an intrinsic aspect of democracy, and there really is no “solution” to gadflies except to try to understand what motivates them and appreciate the underlying democratic principle they represent. The worst strategy, of course, is to allow yourself to respond in kind to the type of angry, personal attacks gadflies are known to make. Many times we treat others badly not because we don’t understand how people should be treated but because we don’t really consider them people if they disagree with us

Democracy relies on people being willing to engage in the marketplace of ideas. But this can only happen if we can relearn how to listen to one another, work together, and use our words to persuade, rather than divide.

Too many Americans refuse to entertain the possibility that an opponent might be a decent human being despite being wrong about an issue. So instead of conversations that might change minds, we reduce our debates to toxic confrontations. We have to do better.

On a personal level we can each do things to improve civility, such as:

Make an effort to be civil when treated uncivilly;

Encourage family, friends and coworkers to be civil;

Vote for political leaders who behave in a civil way;

Commit to one act of civility (say or do something nice) regularly; and

Speak up against or do something about incivility.

A great deal more can be said on this important subject of civility in government, and it would be naïve to suggest that following the strategies outlined would guarantee that others will follow your example. But we must lead. Regrettably, the necessity or the sine qua non of ethical behavior is that it involves risks and possible personal costs. But the potential reward for such risks is more respect for your leadership and a greater sense of public confidence in government.

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