Yes, civility matters, and it matters in a big way. In a self-governing democracy like the United States, civility is the catalyst that brings the best ideas together to solve problems and create opportunities. Without civility, progress is blocked by verbal-violence, hyper-partisanship and political gridlock.
Think of places that could serve as hotspots for incivility. Let’s say any level of government. How about mass media? Now think about why this vitriol is allowed to exist and our role in it.
Political incivility couldn’t exist unless the general public not only tolerated but embraced it.
Let’s reexamine our two hotspots of incivility: The government and mass media. As citizens, we select our leaders, and endorse their behavior. They’ll behave the way they think we want them to. As for the media, they satisfy the demands of their market. When media decision makers detect a demand for civility and objectivity in current events programming and news coverage, that’s what they’ll produce.
That influence begins at an individual level. So ask yourself, “Am I civil?” One way to test your own civility is by introspection: Are you an attentive and open-minded listener to the ideas and opinions of others? Do you allow yourself, after thoughtful consideration, to be influenced by them? Anything less lacks the content of the truly civilized.
Of course, there are many ways to look at civility. The American Heritage dictionary gives us several:
- A noun: Courteous and polite behavior.
- Another noun: An advanced state of intellectual and cultural development marked by progress in complex political and social institutions.
- A verb: To raise from barbarism to an enlightened stage of development.
- An adjective: Having a highly developed society and culture showing evidence of moral and intellectual advancement.
On the other hand, incivility can be seen in a more narrow scope, especially given the list above. To the uncivilized, everyone else is prey. They don’t see the potential of partnering with others to produce something superior to what anyone could alone. They don’t see the value of making their egos and self-interests subservient to the common good.
Approaching others as someone to be defeated in a battle of ideas or opinions is evidence of an unenlightened level of development and lack of moral and intellectual advancement, leading to existence in a state of incivility.
It’s sort of like viewing a discussion as a boxing match. A boxer generally approaches his opponent with a two-pronged strategy. First, avoid the opponent’s blows through ducking, bobbing and weaving and blocking. Second, look for openings to deliver the most damaging blows. This strategy is effective in a fight because the purpose is to render an opponent unconscious or unable to continue.
In a civil society, intellectual and cultural development isn’t achieved with a boxer’s strategy. Societies only make progress through civil interaction among people of good will committed to the common good. As a nation, we face too many difficult issues to take intractable positions and adopt the strategy of a boxer. Ducking and blocking while looking for an opening to attack instead of engaging in thoughtful dialog won’t solve problems or create opportunities.
We’re in need of creative ideas to solve complicated problems such as a worsening environment, illegal immigration, poverty, income inequality, international conflicts, etc., and we need all available brainpower to come up with them. Civil discourse, shared thinking, honest appraisal of the ideas of others, putting your egos and images on the back burner and approaching each other as a source of valuable input shows we’re a morally and intellectually advanced society.
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I really enjoyed this piece and find the concept of political civility extremely interesting in general. I do have to wonder at what point the almighty dollar dictates the outcome of some of the uncivil discussions we routinely see. It reminds me of the moral issues that have come into play with the use of very realistic holograms of deceased music artists in live shows. In the end, someone made the poignant statement that music fans will vote with their wallets. If they pay to see it, then there is no moral issue for them.
In a very roundabout way, I suppose I’m thinking about the monetary contributions made to campaigns by wealthy individuals who have a keen interest in supporting a specific candidate – those essentially buying an agenda. Naturally, with so much money on the line, not to mention careers, I can see why campaigning can become so disingenuous, and I begin to wonder how we, as individuals, can raise a collective voice to eventually overcome spending at the highest levels.
All in all, great post.
I agree that money plays a large role in how our candidates may behave, but, as you mention, the individual consumer has the ability “to vote with their wallet.” I think we, as individuals, can help shape the context of the discussion by supporting objective, non-partisan media outlets as John mentions in his article. Hopefully, a rise in ratings and general support for programming on NPR and PBS can give our government a reason to back these sorts of outlets. I love watching PBS Newshour! Everyone seems so much more respectful during the debates.