The New [In]Civility

IncivilityBy Jill Brimeyer

As hot banks of lights rise on this season’s presidential debates and university auditoriums are swathed in red, white, and blue, Americans ease into their sofas to watch the spectacle unfold. Not just the one playing out onstage, but also the drama as experienced through the news media, robocalls, social media, and coffeehouse chatter.

And, just as sure as representative democracy and free speech reign, there will be tense moments of incivility.

Our political landscape bears the scars from years of less-than-decorous exchanges. Sitting presidents dodge wagging fingers, shouted interruptions, and flying shoes, while candidates field personal potshots aimed at their parenting, parentage, war records, religion, and intelligence, as well as the inevitable comparisons to war criminals.

The realm of politics is just the tip of an uncivil iceberg. Rudeness crops up everywhere from grocery store parking lots to Little League games. And with today’s 24/7 news cycles, reality television, and the “wild, wild West” of the internet, bad behavior is synonymous with entertainment and often fame: The guy who stocks up on toys for charity on Black Friday just doesn’t capture as many eyeballs as the lady who pepper-sprays a fellow shopper to get a deal on an Xbox 360.

A generational shift

“At a certain level there is, indeed, such a thing as the coarsening of America,” says P.M. Forni, cofounder of The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University and author of two leading books on the topic of civility. “There are many forms of kindness, deference, and respect that are not observed today the way they used to be in past centuries. So, we are in certain ways less civil than we used to be.”

At the same time, says Forni, there are new forms of deference and respect that have entered the fray to replace those that are slipping away—many of which are far more important than social niceties.

“Take the example of a pregnant woman riding a bus,” says Forni. “There may be fewer younger people who would give up their seat for her. But when that woman steps into the workplace, the number of people who take her seriously is much greater now than in my father’s generation. Today we are more respectful of people from cultural backgrounds different from our own. These are civil things.”

Steps to civility

According to P.M. Forni, co-founder of The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, the best way to tackle the issue of incivility is to start with ourselves. Here, he offers up a few tips for making our own corner of the world a bit kinder and gentler.

  • Don’t make it personal. First, we need to realize that, in many cases, rudeness is not directed at us—we should try not to take everything personally. “If someone is misbehaving in traffic, you need to remember that if you were not there, someone else would have been there to catch that little show of finger puppetry,” says Forni. “You may have just been caught in a moment of rudeness.”
  • Pick your battles. If you are in a position of responding to an uncivil action, especially if the person is a friend of yours, you have to decide if you want to take up that battle or ignore it, he says. There are worthwhile reasons for both, depending on the situation. State, inform, request. If the act of rudeness comes from someone close to you, Forni’s advice is to address it using the “state, inform, request” model. “Tell them what they have done, how that affected you, and then state that you expect something different from them next time.”
  • Practice “preemptive civility.” One of the most key things we can do to begin eliminating incivility from our lives is to become the kind of person to whom people are less likely to be rude. By being “preemptively civil,” says Forni, “the people with whom we are interacting are more inclined to be considerate and kind. Make the first step, and people will often match your mood.”

Last, Forni emphasizes that civility, good manners, and politeness are not trivial. “No society can survive, let alone thrive, unless there is a critical amount of goodness circulating in it,” he says.

Giving for the sake of the city

In his best-selling book, Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, Forni explains how the underlying meaning
of “civility” goes much deeper than just politeness and courtesy. Derived from the Latin civitas, or city, the word speaks to the sense of civic community that emerges in civilization, a place where residents enlighten their intellect and refine social skills.

“As we are shaped by the city, we learn to give of ourselves for the sake of the city,” Forni writes. “Choosing civility means choosing
to do the right thing for others—for the ‘city.’”

Forni, who delivered a speech on the topic of civility at Drake as part of the University-sponsored Better Together—Creating Community through Civility series, describes the epiphany that prompted this celebrated Italian literature professor to dramatically shift the focus of his life’s work. One day, while lecturing on Dante’s Divine Comedy, he looked at his students and realized that he wanted them to be kind human beings even more than he wanted them to know about Dante.

“As a professor of literature, I had spent my life in the realm of the beautiful,” he adds. “At a certain point in my life, I discovered the realm of the good. To me, civility is important because it is a form of goodness. Because of this, it is not trivial.”

“A national civility disorder”

For better or worse, it’s clear that the U.S. is seeing reduced norms for so-called social niceties and an increase in the level of conflict that is considered acceptable in public discourse.

Weber Shandwick, Powell Tate, and KRC Research came together this year to survey 1,000 American adults on their attitudes toward politics and other aspects of American life. According to their Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey, 63 percent of Americans believe that incivility is a “major problem,” and nearly 71 percent believe that civility has declined in recent years.

Today’s rancorous political environment, believed a majority of survey respondents, is largely responsible for what the study termed a “national civility disorder.” Sixty-three percent of respondents who expect civility to worsen blame politicians for the decline, and 81 percent believe incivility in our government is harming America’s future.

Eighty-three percent said that a candidate’s tone or level of civility will be an important factor in the 2012 presidential election; and
only 40 percent accept incivility as an inherent part of the political process. Still, 67 percent expect the 2012 presidential election to
be uncivil.

“In government, just as in the general populace, there is a spectrum of civility,” says Scott Raecker, a member of the Iowa House of Representatives as well as executive director of Character Counts In Iowa, a grant-funded institute at Drake that’s an arm of the largest character education program in the nation. “You have to remember—it’s a representative government. Exchanges between politicians are going to end up representing who we are as a people.”

Partisan Polarization

Who we are as a people, according to recent studies, is growing more polarized.

A 2012 Pew Research poll confirmed that voter partisanship is soaring, with a growing ideological chasm between Republicans and Democrats ( Point for point, the two political parties are more polarized than they ever have been in the 25 years that the poll has been conducted.

Backlash against this polarization may be creating a larger populace that falls somewhere in the middle. The Pew poll shows that a growing number of Americans now identify as independents (38 percent) compared to Democrats (32 percent) and Republicans (24 percent).

As much as this separation is felt among the general populace—we all know with whom we can and cannot talk politics—it is magnified in our states’ and nation’s capitals. While he’s seen bipartisan committees, bills, and friendships flourish in the legislature, Raecker has also observed that when lawmakers dine out and socialize, exchanges are increasingly divided along red and blue lines.

“It’s a whole other level of networking, and it used to be much more bipartisan than it is today,” he says, adding that laying the groundwork with these informal social contacts can come in handy when opinions differ and emotions are high.

“People are less likely to demean or deceive you if you build a relationship with them,” he says.

Life on the digital edge

Despite a growing public perception that politics is becoming less civil, Americans’ personal experiences with incivility trended in a more positive direction—with one notable exception.

According to the Civility in America survey, Americans reported slightly fewer instances of incivility on the road (60 percent), when shopping (29 percent), at work (34 percent), and in their neighborhoods (28 percent). One area did see a dramatic increase in 2012, though—incivility online doubled from 9 percent in 2011 to 18 percent this year.

Today’s age of digital communication, social media, and 24/7 news outlets brings the advantage of connectivity and immediacy. It also brings some distinct challenges.

According to recent research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, email recipients only have a 50-50 chance of correctly interpreting the tone of any given email message. Yet email recipients believe they have correctly ascertained what the sender meant 90 percent of the time. It’s likely that many a heated email war has been launched thanks to misinterpretation.

Part of the problem, says Raecker, is the speed at which technology has advanced. “How long ago was it that we wrote on walls in caves  and then were sending messages by boat?” he asks.
“This rapid advancement in technology has compressed all of this evolution of communication, and, as a result, there are people using this technology who are struggling with how to properly use these channels.”

Curbing anonymous venom

When this immediacy, access, and ease of use are combined with anonymity, it tends to bring out the worst in people and lead them to behave in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise.

A brief history of political incivility

Is modern politics really more uncivil than it was in the past? Yes and no—when our nation was new, there were more genteel manners and more decorum, but also more shootings, canings, and racial invective.

One of the historic mileposts for incivility is found in 1804, when sitting vice president Aaron Burr challenged political rival Alexander Hamilton, the former secretary of the treasury, to a duel. The two drew their pistols at the New Jersey dueling grounds, and Hamilton was mortally wounded, along with Burr’s political career.

Likewise, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks chose to express his displeasure with Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner’s impassioned 1856 anti-slavery speech by bludgeoning him unconscious with a metal-tipped cane. Overnight both men became heroes in their respective regions and went on to be reelected.

In addition to physical altercations, the early days of our country were also rife with character assassinations and hate speech.

In the messy election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson’s and John Adams’ camps staged an escalating war of words. Jefferson’s backers called then-president Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adams’ Federalists countered by describing Jefferson as “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

War, economic strife, and other crises tend to fan the  flames of wrath against ruling parties. During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt was called a traitor. In the midst of the Vietnam War, protesters shouted down President Lyndon Johnson, asking, “How many kids did you kill today?”

Whether we’re more or less civil today than we were yesterday is a moot point. The bigger question remains: What are we doing to ensure that we do better tomorrow?

“We call it ‘the veil of our monitor,’”says Amy Smit, director of communication and events for Character Counts In Iowa ( “We’re not looking eye to eye with the people. And what happens on the internet with anonymity is the same as what we see in day-to-day exchanges. If you’re on the interstate and someone cuts you off, are you going to make a rude gesture? It’s likely that if it turned out you knew the person, you might cut them some slack.”

Bad online behavior has reached such critical mass that many newspapers, such as The Des Moines Register, have shifted their online commenting systems to require use of public identities.

Following the Register’s August 2011 move to eliminate anonymous commenting by requiring registration through the social media site Facebook, Herb Strentz, professor emeritus and former dean of Drake’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, penned guest commentary in an independent weekly Cityview.

“Will using a Facebook ID adequately combat the major drawback of anonymity, allowing—take your pick—scurrilous, racist, sexist, vitriolic, or irresponsible comments to poison the Register website?” wrote Strentz. “The anonymity issue is national. Many newspapers are fed up with the commentary their anonymity policies facilitated, and they have taken steps to bring a measure of civility and common sense to online postings.”

According to Chris Snider, instructor of practice in multimedia journalism at Drake and a former managing editor for the digital version of the Register, the shift seems to have banished most of the uncivil exchanges on the newspaper’s site. Even so, he says, there may still be a place for anonymity.

“There are plenty of problems with anonymous commenting, and there were days that I hated it,” says Snider. “But anonymity can also bring information that wouldn’t otherwise come in, which can add news value.”

Conversations on civility

How does one pinpoint that fine, wiggly line that divides free speech and bullying or hate speech? It’s a question that plagues the media and academia alike.

Drake’s Statement of Principles dictates that students and staff should be able to discuss divergent perspectives and opinions in a civil manner that affirms the Drake community. Upholding this level of discourse is a responsibility that President David Maxwell takes seriously, even as it presents a challenge to elegantly mesh civility with free speech.

“The first amendment, particularly as it plays out in academia, is a messy freedom,” says Maxwell. “There are times when we are going to be subjected to things that we find distasteful or even repugnant. You have a right to say what you believe without punishment. But it doesn’t mean that you have the right to expect no consequence.”

In 2010, Drake partnered with several Iowa organizations to open a statewide dialogue on the importance of bringing civility back into public discourse. Drake co-sponsored the Better Together—Creating Community through Civility speaker series with Character Counts In Iowa, the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, and Interfaith Alliance of Iowa.

Forni spoke on Drake’s campus in January 2011 and was joined by Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, and Jim Leach, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Nearly 1,000 people attended the series, which was also broadcast statewide on Iowa Public Television.

“The initiative focused on one of our core values—civility is very much aligned with our values as an institution,” says Maxwell. “I think we increasingly have a challenge to model the behavior we expect from our students. That’s why it’s so important to have forums like these.”

Grassroots change

Creating a shift in the overall civility of our society first begins within each individual. Come next week, when you round the grocery aisle to find a fellow shopper blocking your way while chatting loudly on a cell phone, you have choices—to respond with anger or snide passive aggression, or to display kindness in the face of rudeness.

On Nov. 6, when candidates collide at the polls, the nation will have the opportunity to make that choice on a much larger scale, influencing the civility of public discourse in the political arena.

“Right now, we’re allowing these negative campaigns to work,” says Raecker. “You have to ask yourself: If that’s what a candidate’s willing to do in a public campaign, what would they do behind closed doors? Change comes from the ballot box.”

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