Civility in Civics
The Importance of Respectful Discourse in a Diverse Democracy
E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. The motto suggested by the committee Congress appointed on July 4, 1776, that is included on the Great Seal of the United States expresses the sentiment that we are stronger as a union, a nation, as a democracy, because of the many different people in our country. In a democracy, in order to form a more perfect union, it is essential for citizens to be able to freely express their opinions and engage in meaningful debates. This is because democracy relies on the exchange of ideas and open discourse to help citizens make informed decisions and hold their elected officials accountable.
A lack of civility in political discourse can be especially prevalent and harmful in a diverse democracy, where people come from different backgrounds and hold a variety of perspectives. In order for a diverse democracy to function effectively, it is essential for individuals to engage in respectful discourse, even when they disagree with one another. This means being willing to listen to and understand the perspectives of others, regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion or other personal characteristics.
Civility in Decline
Unfortunately, recent pushes to legislate what can and cannot be discussed seem to be causing a disturbing decrease in civility (or increase in incivility) in our society. This decline in civility can have serious consequences for democracy. When people are unwilling to engage in respectful discourse, it becomes difficult for them to reach consensus and make decisions that benefit the greater good. This leads to a breakdown of trust in the political process and a decline in public participation. Additionally, when people are constantly exposed to uncivil discourse, it can lead to feelings of anger, frustration and hopelessness, especially among marginalized communities who may feel targeted by uncivil behavior.
In recent years, many people have expressed concern about the decline of civility in political discourse. A recent survey published by walktheridge.com shows that nearly all Americans, 95%, say civility is a problem. Three-quarters (74%) say civility has declined in the past few years. And two-thirds (67%) say it is a major problem today.
The Price of Incivility
This decline has had a significant negative impact on our society, its organizations and its institutions. Legislative bodies seem deadlocked where there was not a significant majority for one party causing major issues to remain unaddressed. Decisions are being made about people’s bodies without their express consent causing fear, pain and anguish.
In the article “The Price of Incivility” in the Harvard Business Review, Christine Porath and Christine Pearson state that incivility chips away at the bottom line. “Nearly everybody who experiences workplace incivility responds in a negative way, in some cases overtly retaliating. Employees are less creative when they feel disrespected, and many get fed up and leave. About half deliberately decrease their effort or lower the quality of their work. And incivility damages customer relationships. Our research shows that people are less likely to buy from a company with an employee they perceive as rude, whether the rudeness is directed at them or at other employees. Witnessing just a single unpleasant interaction leads customers to generalize about other employees, the organization and even the brand.”
Reasons for Incivility
What drives incivility? Fear. As Herman Mazlow wrote, we all have a basic need to feel safe and as if we belong. So, we are fearful when our sense of safety or belonging is threatened. When we think that there is not enough of something for us to have what we need or want. When we think someone will harm us because we don’t know them well enough to know if they are a threat to us. When we do not think we will be respected unless we show we are better or superior to others.
Have you noticed that people who are like one another or know one another well are civil with one another? Why? There is no fear of being unsafe or belonging: affinity bias.
Manifestations of Incivility
How does this lack of civility manifest? Intentionally or unintentionally, lack of civility can manifest in various forms, including insults, personal attacks and the spread of misinformation. It can also involve the use of inflammatory language, name-calling and hate speech. Additionally, it can take the form of failing to listen to opposing viewpoints, making derogatory comments about someone’s background or personal life, and engaging in ad hominem attacks.
In order to promote civility in political discourse, it is important for individuals to understand what civility means and why it is important. The OED defines civility as “formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech.” That means demonstrating respect for others, even when one disagrees with their opinions or beliefs. It involves recognizing the inherent dignity of all people and treating them with dignity and respect, even when one disagrees with them. Civility in political discourse also involves being open-minded, engaging in active listening and seeking common ground.
There are several ways that we can promote civility in political discourse. One important way is to avoid personal attacks and insults. This means refraining from making derogatory comments about someone’s appearance, background or personal life. It also means avoiding ad hominem attacks, which are arguments that attack someone’s character rather than the issue at hand. Instead of engaging in personal attacks, individuals should focus on the issues and engage in respectful dialogue with those who hold different opinions.
Seek common ground. This means looking for areas of agreement, even when one disagrees with someone on the vast majority of issues. By focusing on the areas of agreement, individuals can build trust and respect, which can help to foster a more civil political discourse. Additionally, when people feel that their opinions are being taken into account, they are more likely to be open to compromise and to engage in respectful discourse.
As Doug Stone, Sheila Heen and Bruce Patten say in their book “Difficult Conversations,” take a learning stance. Engage in active listening. This means truly listening to what someone is saying, without interrupting them or assuming that one knows what they are going to say. When individuals use respectful language, they are more likely to foster a civil discourse and be taken seriously.
Finally, model civility in your own behavior. This means being a positive example for others and treating others with respect, even when one disagrees with them. Additionally, individuals should be willing to call out incivility when they see it, and to encourage others to engage in respectful discourse. By doing these things, you can help promote more civil discourse and preserve the democratic values that are essential to our society.
This article is featured in the spring-summer 2023 issue of 603 Diversity.
603 Diversity’s mission is to educate readers of all backgrounds about the exciting accomplishments and cultural contributions of the state’s diverse communities, as well as the challenges faced and support needed by those communities to continue to grow and thrive in the Granite State.
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