“Civility is not not saying negative or harsh things.
It is not the absence of critical analysis.
It is the manner in which we are sharing
this territorial freedom of political discussion.
If our discourse is yelled and screamed
and interrupted and patronized, that’s uncivil.”
~ Richard Dreyfuss, Actor, Civics Education Innovator
While one of the traditional tenants of etiquette is to avoid the topics of politics and religion in social conversation, during Presidential election years, especially, it is very difficult to avoid discussions of politics within families, among friends and in workplaces across America. The question is, can we have such discussions without sinking into incivility, something with which nearly all Americans — 90 percent — believe the nation has a problem?
But if so many Americans recognize the problem, then what — or who — is causing it? Is it really a small number of people in our society that is creating this horrific perception of incivility in America? Last week I wrote about a Presidential candidate that is spreading a tsunami of incivility across the nation. But incivility, bullying, rudeness and a lack of empathy have been evident for awhile, especially with the rise of social media. One has only to look on an number of websites to see that personal attacks, name-calling, bullying, cruelty, threats of and wishes for harm to others has been escalating. This is in addition to the traditional so-called school-yard bullying that has always existed.
President George Washington’s Civility
As a people, we Americans tend to go completely over the top in arguing politics during Presidential election seasons, and in particular during the present general election. Political candidates often lob word bombs to their opponents, and it is part of our First Amendment rights to challenge ideas and positions. Our Founding Fathers ironically lobbed their share of nasty word bombs at each other as they went about the business of forming a more perfect union! The exception to such behavior and a beacon of dignity and civility was our first President, George Washington, who had a masterful way of managing the huge egos, intimidating personalities and clashes of ideas among his Cabinet — which included such formidable figures as Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who also happened to be fierce adversaries. Washington believed strongly in maintaining civility and as a teenager wrote a book of etiquette entitled, Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation. If only we would all follow Washington’s example!
Instead, today we are seeing an increase in the boldness of racial hate groups, helped greatly by the rise of the 1990s Tea Party movement according to an NAACP report published in 2012. And fresh backlashes — whether covert or overt — continue against women, Dreamers, the LGBT community and African Americans, among others. There is a small ray of sunlight, however, emerging on this issue; because of the political attacks on Muslims, this group is experiencing a backlash against the backlash; that is what happens when people stand up to indecency, unfairness and incivility. But we as a society must do more than stand up and speak out only when a particular issue receives concentrated and intense attention; we must speak out when necessary on everyday occurrences and evolving negative social trends.
Social Media Pitfalls
The evolution of social media over the past two decades, from the early chat rooms to Twitter, Snapchat and beyond, has brought with it both blessings and curses. It is the curses that have cast a shadow over a more civil — and safer — society. The ability to hide behind a user name and computer screen allows people to cast restraint aside, launch personal attacks, use foul language and even embarrass and threaten others.
One of the major online hotbeds of inflammatory political commentary is Facebook, a medium created to be a positive force in bringing people together in a good way, not a negative force for bullying, offending and driving people apart. Likewise, Twitter has become a clearing house for hate speech and cyberbullying. And, way too many comments on on-line political articles are personal, hateful and bullying. Overall, the Internet can be a very frightening place to interact. But it shouldn’t be so.
The Guidelines of Civil Discourse
Whether online, on the phone or face-to-face with another individual or group, follow these etiquette guidelines to gain the most out of a political discussion:
- Adjust Your Attitude – Do you desire simply to argue your point or experience a productive exchange of ideas? If it’s the former go yell at the TV instead; but if it’s the latter be prepared to listen as well as speak. Try using phrases such as, “Well, I have to respectfully disagree,” “I hadn’t heard that,” “I understand your point, but,” instead of inflammatory, insulting statements.
- Know Your Audience – With whom are you speaking? You should adjust your formality and caution levels depending on whether you are discussing politics with your family, close friends, relatives, neighbors, coworkers, casual acquaintances or people you’ve just met.
- Hold On To Your Sense of Humor – Politics is a serious subject but when you see that the discussion is becoming heated you can cool it down with humor, provided you use it to relieve the tension and not make fun of anyone. Self-confident and magnanimous people often use their wit along with self-deprecating humor to disarm and engender attention and respect.
- Be Respectful and Courteous – No matter how much you disagree with someone’s viewpoint, regardless of how foolish you believe a person is for holding a particular opinion, they are just as entitled to their conclusions as you are to yours. And, please don’t conflate respect and courtesy for “political correctness,” a hateful term coined by those who resent having to respect, publicly at least, certain individuals and groups that they dislike or fear.
- Just the Facts – It’s okay to debate a point, even passionately, but stick to the facts of the issue, be accurate and fair and make your point in a civil and decent manner. And if you and those with whom you are discussing or debating cannot reach agreement on a particular issue, kindly agree to disagree and move on from the subject, at least for the time being.
- Give and Take – A discussion or conversation is a give-and-take situation. One person speaks, then the other person speaks, and so on, back and forth. So while talking politics can get people very excited, try not to interrupt someone who is making a point; if you must, in order to get a word in edgewise, do so politely: “Excuse me, I’d like to comment on that point if I may.”
Entering into a civil discourse on politics, discussing the candidates and their positions and qualifications and exploring other people’s feelings about the issues can be very rewarding and illuminating. Done correctly, you can walk away from such a discussion more informed and with your self-respect, reputation and relationships intact.
Until next time,