Has today’s society lost all concern for civility? The conversation and questions have been growing louder over the past few decades, and there appears to be no real concern to improve the tone or tenor for the lack of respect in the ways in which we deal with each other, especially when we disagree.
It should be very apparent that our inability to deal with a broad range of problems is largely attributable to the destructive ways in which the issues are being addressed. A few week ago I was shocked to read an editorial in our papers, penned by one of our editors, who, instead of offering constructive commentary on comments made by individuals, resorted to using a broad brush to paint many with the comments of a few. He truly didn’t mean to do so and has issued a formal apology, but was so enraged by the comments of the few that it seemed a simple step to assume everyone of similar association must think and act like the persons who made the comments, even though the statements have been far and widely condemned by nearly all. Despite the condemnation, once comments like those are in the public arena they continue to circulate.
None of us are immune from putting our foot in our mouth. Some of the smartest people around can be caught making an inappropriate comment from time to time—sometimes taken out of context or requiring further explanation— but sometimes they just speak without thinking it all the way through. The problem isn’t always the comment, but how the comment is blown out of proportion. It takes on a life of its own, and, using a current term, goes viral.
Civility is more than just mere politeness. Civility doesn’t mean a lack of confrontation or questioning on important issues, and it certainly shouldn’t be an excuse for any statements made publicly by an official or citizen. But neither should the lack of civility be allowed to become the destructive force it is growing to be in our society.
In short, any reasonable definition of civility must recognize that there are many different interests which divide an increasingly diverse society, a society that produces an endless series of confrontations over difficult moral and distributional issues. We all need to realize that other thoughtful and caring people have different and opposing views on how to best address these complex problems. Constructive and open debate needs to focus on solutions which have the greatest chance of success, not upon personal attacks which often include a distortion of the facts, name calling and a low blow leveled by one adversary against another.
By not demanding more civil and factual behavior from our leaders as they address the compelling interests of the day, we ultimately repeat what we hear and the actions we see to further distort comments. The end result is a likely increase in the probability that any solution adopted is doomed for failure, having been constructed on inaccurate information. Fair, open and honest discussion and debate is essential to our democratic state, but when the escalation of distortion, closed-minded delay tactics and mutual mistrust enter the equation, all chances of a satisfactory resolution are lost.
Now we have powerful lobbying efforts by well-funded and substantially positioned power brokers and one-sided, self-interested watchdog organizations like today’s media adding to the noise. It’s no wonder common sense and civility have become a lost means of resolving the issues that are widening the divide among us. We simply can’t continue to justify the means used by our leaders and ourselves if we seek to address the root cause of the issues we face. Despite all the new technological information outlets available to us today, seeking the real truth and trying to avoid becoming complicit parties to pursue selfish objectives is almost impossible. The distortion of truth and lack of civil behavior has become so firmly rooted in our society that it is now our way of life.
This column was written before this week’s first Presidential debate. Now be honest with yourself, especially if you’ve already made up your mind for whom you plan to vote. Did either candidate offer a persuasive argument that caused you to reconsider your firmly rooted position, or are your positions so well rooted in either side’s distorted version of the truth that even listening to the other position causes an uneasy feeling?
Until we realize that the issues we face and conclusions we reach must be made on the basis of substantial open-minded arguments, made by fair and honest individuals who make personal gain a secondary concern, we will continue to ratchet up the volume. The end result may well be a powerful backlash and an ever-growing call for greater civility. We must find a way to transition from win-lose, which ultimately leads to lose-lose, and reach out to win-win opportunities. Look no further than the Tea Party or the We are the 99% movements gaining traction in the grassroots of society today. In many cases their actions are marginalized by the well-seated power brokers who dismiss their views and work to neutralize their efforts by painting them as radicals instead of addressing the issues they hold dear.
Dan Alexander is publisher and CEO of Denton Publications. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.