RESTORE CIVILITY TO SAVE AMERICA: Cynicism Is Threatening the Stability of Our Country

By Mathers, Earl | Public Management, November 2017 | Go to article overview

RESTORE CIVILITY TO SAVE AMERICA: Cynicism Is Threatening the Stability of Our Country


Mathers, Earl, Public Management


The history of the United States can be characterized by the struggles and challenges our nation has endured, including civil war. Although social strife sometimes persists long after peace has been nominally secured, we have overcome these numerous conflicts sufficiently well to safeguard our national identity and continuing viability.

Overcoming these crises has been facilitated by leaders who managed to maintain a degree of civility in their dialogue with the opposition, which led to dispute resolution. According to a recent survey from the National Institute for Civil Discourse, 75 percent of Americans believe incivility is a major problem in society today.

The lack of civility is a more insidious destructive force than civil war, and it is producing disastrous consequences, including gridlock, ineffective dispute resolution, polarization, and a decline in the quality of American life.

Despite the legitimacy of contrary points of view on a variety of subjects, the vitriolic expression of those ideas as a persistent trend in American society has led to near absolute polarization in many legislative chambers, especially notable in the U.S. Congress.

As a consequence, the resolution of many of our most vexing problems has virtually ceased in favor of political one-upmanship. The net result is diminished productivity and the avoidance of responsible decision making.

In the place of productive dialogue leading to solutions, we observe political figures, members of the media, and others talking past each other as opposed to speaking with each other. Often their statements and attitudes are so rigid and antagonistic that future compromise becomes impossible. This leads to political inertia.

A Crisis of Incivility

The following excerpt from the July 2016 Psychology Today article, "Is Civility Dead in America?", seems particularly appropriate to this discussion: "Additionally, observational learning theory suggests that when leaders and those held in high esteem in our culture behave in uncivil ways their behavior is modeled and repeated by others.

When, for example, celebrity CEOs, presidential candidates, and other high-ranking politicians, sports stars, and Hollywood celebrities behave in uncivil ways (and get away with it), it gets modeled and thus repeated by others."

This crisis of incivility has become a chronic condition of public life. Consequently, incivility is compromising the success of American society and especially the viability of the government. We should not, however, assign the blame exclusively to our leaders. As a people, Americans have become highly desensitized to behaviors that would have been outrageous not so many years ago. Indeed, in some circles this misconduct is cheered on and rewarded.

If the objective is to devise solutions to problems or to leverage additional resources so as to implement those solutions, shaming others, exchanging vulgarities, and making blanket indictments against the opposition are unlikely to promote trust and collaboration.

Practices in Civility

The list assembled below does not include any groundbreaking ideas. In fact, the methods of practicing civility in dealing with others are well known, if frequently ignored. If they are applied, these commonsense suggestions will have a definitive impact on overcoming the increasingly dire consequences of incivility:

1 Allow the other person to speak and listen empathetically while he or she is speaking. Stephen Covey said, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." This continues to be great advice decades after the publication of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

2 Refrain from immediately blaming the other side or your opponent for everything that goes wrong. Assigning blame to someone else is a defense mechanism at times, and on other occasions is used to denigrate others. If we pause for introspection from time to time, we may find that we share the responsibility for specific mishaps. …

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