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The Town Crier

Incivility Isn’t Harmless

by C. John Grom  |  December 14, 2014

Have you ever witnessed or taken part in a political conversation that started off as a reasonable exchange of ideas, but escalated into a full-scale shouting match? When political incivility runs rampant in a large group, there’s a high the risk for talks to devolve into verbal violence and a low chance of anyone learning anything.

Let’s consider our nation’s two major parties. Neither is directly to blame for the rampant political incivility engulfing our government. Both sides are equally likely to slip into a schoolyard mentality and switch from rational, knowledge-based comments to personal insults and name calling. It just takes one shove. First, one person gives vent to their biases, then another, and the next thing you know, you’re witness to a verbal free-for-all, and any hope of injecting a reasonable, civil comment disappears. At this point, the rational debaters tend to slowly withdraw and leave the field to the warriors.

The Broken Window

The aforementioned scenario has been referred to by some as the “broken windows” theory, introduced in the early 1980s by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. While it may be a criminological insight, there’s an interesting parallel when looking at Wilson and Kelling’s article and how it relates political incivility.

The main example used to illustrate the theory is this: Imagine an abandoned building with a few broken windows. If no one repairs them, there’s a tendency vandals will break a few more. Eventually, the situation could escalate to the point where they may break into the building, become squatters or light fires inside.

Let’s revisit our initial question: Have you ever witnessed or taken part in a political conversation that started off as a reasonable exchange of ideas, but escalated into a full-scale shouting match? Assume our reasonable conversation is a building, and each personal insult is a rock going through a window. In far too many discussions between the political left and right, the first personal insult quickly leads to another, followed by yet another, and soon, names like “idiot,” “liar” and “moron” begin to fly. Accusations like, “You put profit before people” or “You put trees before jobs” dominate, and put an effective end to any hope of agreement.

Our building is now aflame.

Why This Matters

When insults and name-calling become the customary mode of political discussion among neighbors and relatives as well as our political leaders, our self-governing society, which depends on a civilized exchange of ideas, is at risk. We live in an age where technology provides instant access to information on every imaginable topic from every conceivable point-of-view. Unfortunately, this myriad of facts and opinions also provides ammunition to fire at anyone we disagree with, more rocks to throw.

At the extreme edges of the political left and right, we find people who can be thought of as “grievance accumulators,” individuals driven more by attacks on members of the other aisle than problem solving. It’s characteristic of grievance accumulators to identify a problem and blame it on someone or some group they don’t like, switch their firearm to “full auto,” and fire all their ammo at the opponent while giving little or no consideration to the problem itself. That’s a serious issue.

Day-by-day our American culture becomes increasingly characterized by noise, meanness, ignorance and contracted hearts. As a result, our grand experiment in self-government is placed in jeopardy as more power has settled in fewer hands.

While we were once at or near the top among industrialized nations in most measures of cultural success, we now only lead in gun ownership, crime, debt and obesity. Our 15-year-old students rank 28th in math and 17th in science. We’re 12th in college graduation rates, 23rd in infrastructure, 27th in life expectancy and similarly behind in many other categories. Yet we continue to fight each other rather than solve problems.

Our only way out of this tailspin is as John Adams suggested nearly 240 years ago, “There must be decency and respect and veneration for persons of every rank, or we are undone.” Or, if you’d like, you can paraphrase from a mid-1950s Christmas song: “Let there be respect on earth, and let it begin with me.”



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