“You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.” Hillary Clinton’s advice is exactly what you should not do when confronted by incivility, name-calling, disrespect, and bullying.
Incivility is not the antidote to incivility. By responding in kind, the perpetrator wins. Bullies love it – because they need the attention and love to push the needle farther.
While Hillary’s advice is wrongheaded, Michelle Obama got it right. In a speech in 2016 at the Democratic National Convention, where ironically she endorsed Clinton, she said, “How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”
Name-calling, innuendo, epithets, insinuations, physical confrontations, and character assassination take place in public and private situations. Republicans and Democrats, as well as citizens and groups, engage in coarse and boorish behavior. Social media is also a venue for crude, disrespectful, and vindictive behavior.
According to a study by KRC Research, 69% of Americans feel there is an inciviliy problem and 73% feel that the United States is losing stature as a civil nation. In this study, 75% of respondents said politicians were responsible, along with 69% who indicated that the Internet and social media are part of the problem. Three quarters of Americans believe that incivility has risen to crisis levels.
Cynicism, fear, and mistrust are fueled by anger and aggression. Incivility comes with a cost, and spawns fragmentation and resentment.
So what can be done? Throwing verbal hand grenades and displaying baskets of deplorables are not the answer.
The term incivility has its Latin roots, according to the Oxford dictionary, to mean “not of a citizen” — incivilis. The responsibility of all citizens is to meet their civil duty with dignity and in tune with democratic principles. Incivility is contrary to those responsibilities.
Civility is powerful: a sign of strength, character, and fortitude. Civility is not a sign of weakness. Actually it is a demanding concept that requires honest debate, listening to contrasting ideas, and having the strength to respect adversaries when ideas are challenging.
Maturity and respect are needed to engage others and understand ideas, values, or principles and to comprehend others’ experiences and points of view philosophically and conceptually. Insecure and intolerant individuals easily fall into hostile and aggressive language and profanity.
Incivility is crippling. Respectful discourse is essential. Hearing other people’s stories makes them human, not labeling them as an ‘ist’ of some kind: racists, feminists, sexists, facists, socialists, nationalists, supremists, populists, elitists, militarists, or others. Stereotypes and name-calling frequently have a base in prejudice or ignorance with the goal of tagging and characterizing people negatively. The aim of name-calling is to stop discourse.
Participation across the political spectrum and respectful discourse are indispensable. The foundation of citizenship is respect for ideas and values and living and defending them, even if it means standing against the majority or the crowd.
Moral dialogue requires a “robust public dialogue” in which differences and similarities are discussed, explored and engaged openly, even if it does not bring agreement. These dialogues are not easy, particularly in a contemptuous climate and society, but they can lead to common ground.
Listening to each other’s contrasting points of view creates greater understanding and respect. Disagreeing is not the question: it is part of a democracy, but the manner in which individuals challenge others does matter. Humiliation or crass and vulgar ‘putdowns’ eventually result in harassment, violence, or injury — all of which have no moral basis.
Empowered citizens have the responsibility, at times, to lead by outrage. Outrage, however, does not mean or is synonymous with incivility, personal attacks or violence. When power is abused and positive purposes ignored, citizens must stand up and use their moral authority – ideals, values, and ethics – to combat incivility with civil discourse based on principles. They must logically make the case based on values and principles.
Former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia discussed how to present a civil case and the importance of trust in the process. “Trust is won by fairly presenting the facts of the case and honestly characterizing the issues; by owning up to those points that cut against you and addressing them forthrightly; and by showing respect for the intelligence of your audience.” His advice pertains not only to the courtroom, but also to public, political, and personal discussion.
President Barack Obama stated, “Civility also requires relearning how to disagree without being disagreeable. Surely you can question my policies without questioning my faith or, for that matter, my citizenship.”
Civility is required to sustain national principles — free speech, individual rights, equality, and democracy. It is really up to an empowered people to sustain them. There is no one else who is going to do it.