Lately I’ve been thinking about civility. Or the lack of it. I know – what a quaint notion in the 21st Century; the thought that – even in an election year – we can discuss important, provocative and even divisive issues with civility and mutual respect. It sounds so…archaic.
You all know what I’m talking about – how we demonize the opposition, and hammer home our own points – even when it means sledgehammering the other guy. We are absolutely convinced that our views are divinely inspired, 100% true – and the views of the other side are nothing more than the uninformed, delusional rantings of a bunch of traitorous fools.
OK, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. But read the online comments section of any media, and you’ll get my drift.
Incivility is not a new problem. Our constitutional guarantee of free speech and our country’s long history of robust debate mean that American discourse – especially the political kind – has always been fractious and rude, from the earliest days of the republic. Some folks say that even asking for civility is wrong, because the freedom to be uncivil is an essential element of free speech. Point taken, but…
…I think our country’s difficulty addressing a broad range of troubling issues is due largely to the troubling way in which we address them. According to a 2012 poll, two out of three Americans consider a lack of civility to be a major problem for the country. Nearly half the American people (49 percent) tune out government and politics, and almost two-thirds of those people cite the general tone and lack of civility as major factors in their decision. So, basically, our public beating up of those with whom we disagree means that the American public is giving up.
So, what to do; what to do. I’m going to tilt at this particular windmill with four suggestions that I think would help us fix problems, rather than fix blame.
First, following the principles of “getting to yes.” For almost 30 years, the book by that title has been a great guide to negotiating successfully without getting taken, getting angry, or giving in. It advocates “separating the people from the problem" so that conflicts don’t spiral down into "us vs. them" animosity, but instead elevate the relative merits of competing problem-solving strategies.
Second, take a civility pledge. I know: sounds dumb. But putting our name to something in writing, even something aspirational, makes us take it more seriously. A good, thorough civility pledge can be found on the intriguing website, “Camels with Hammers.” Check it out.
Third, take a breath before you post comments on line. And sign your name – your real name – to what you say. Don’t make the media’s online comment sections the refuge of the cowards and the crazies – elevate the discourse.
Fourth, if you live in Missoula, go to cityclubmissoula.org and join City Club, devoted to the civil discussion of difficult issues. It’s a great organization.
Finally, here’s a note from history. By age 16, George Washington had copied out, by hand, 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior.” Some of them are laughable by today’s standards, like “Kill no Vermin such as Fleas, Lice and Ticks in the Sight of Others.” But some of them still hold true. I’ll sign off with Number 110: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” Good one, George.
I’m Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of United Way of Missoula County. Thanks for being civil, and thanks for listening.