Divisive politicians. Shouting TV pundits. Mean-spirited social media trolls. Are you concerned about the decline in civility?
You’re not alone. Nine out of ten Americans believe the erosion of civility is a serious problem, according to Arthur C. Brooks, a Harvard professor and author of Love Your Enemies.
Who is to blame? According to an annual civility study, seventy-five percent of Americans blame politicians, 69% fault the Internet/social media, and 59% say it’s the news media. As a former Congressman, the most common question I’m asked is: “Aren’t you glad you’re not in Washington during these crazy times?”
Yes, Washington does feel very different than it did during my tenure. But even if we fear America being ripped apart by divisive leaders and talking heads who tell us that ideological opponents are worthless, it’s not too late to turn things around. We just need to follow these simple rules.
Rule #1: Don’t be (or hire) an asshole.
You can tell a lot about a person by how they treat people with less power. If a person is rude to the waiter, they are probably a jerk.
Robert Sutton, a Stanford professor, wrote an essay based upon his personal experiences at Stanford which talked about the “no asshole rule.” Sutton said company leaders should screen out toxic staff because they worsen morale and productivity. The mildly profane essay, published by the Harvard Business Review, provoked over 1,000 emails and led to his book called The No Asshole Rule. After it was released, HBR published Sutton’s follow-up article, “Why I Wrote The No Asshole Rule.” (The term “asshole” captures the “emotional wallop” better than “jerk,” wrote Sutton.)
Sutton is right. Company leaders shouldn’t excuse bad behavior merely because the employee has good technical skills or generates revenue.
Rule #2: Listen with an open mind to those with differing views.
When I was first elected to Congress, I had the privilege of attending Harvard’s bipartisan congressional orientation program. I absolutely loved it. The speakers encouraged open-mindedness and civility, a message I took with me to D.C. I worried greatly about that civility during the contentious election season of 2020. And so, in November of 2020, I wrote an article entitled “What I Learned at the Harvard IOP’s Congressional Orientation,” which was published by the Harvard Crimson, encouraging new members of Congress from both parties to attend the Harvard event.
Why did they need encouragement? Because the orientation had been criticized by both parties in the past. In 1994, all Republicans boycotted it, claiming that Harvard was “too left-leaning.” In 2018, some Democrats attending the orientation complained there were CEO speakers but not enough labor union speakers. These complaints all missed the mark. They underestimated the value of a representative keeping an open mind to all sides.
Would it kill a Republican to hear what a left-leaning Harvard professor has to say about improving access to higher education for poorer students? Would it be so bad for a Democrat to listen to what a right-leaning CEO has to say about how to create more jobs in the private sector? Not only is the answer to both questions “no,” but this open-mindedness is a critical component to any political career.
Rule #3: Be courteous to your opponent. They may be your ally in the future.
Anne Wexler, a former presidential advisor, gave sage advice at the Harvard orientation: “Always remember that in Washington, there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies,” Wexler said. “Civility is the watchword.”
As someone who served eight years in Congress, I saw she was correct.
For example, in May 2008, I was invited to the Oval Office by President George W. Bush to attend a signing ceremony for a higher education bill that had been co-sponsored by me in the House and co-sponsored by Senator Ted Kennedy in the Senate.
After Kennedy and I arrived, Bush invited us into the Oval Office. Pointing to the Resolute desk, Bush said, “This is the same desk Ted’s brother used when he was president.” Pointing under the desk, Bush continued, “And this is the same spot where that iconic photograph of little John Jr. was taken as he crawled under the desk. We are now going to reenact that famous scene by having Ted crawl under the desk.” They both erupted in laughter.
Aside from being courteous to each other, Bush and Kennedy were practical politicians who found common ground on some issues, such as education reform and immigration. It goes to show: Your opponent doesn’t have to be your enemy.
Rule #4: Remember the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Brooks: Respect matters most.
In “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” a girl entered the home of three bears, and then ate their porridge, broke a chair, and fell asleep in their bed. The moral is respecting others and their property.
Coincidentally, three big advocates for respectful behavior have the same last name: Brooks.
Brooks #1: Country singer Garth Brooks gave a talk in March 2020 in which he promoted the idea of civility. “If you want to surround yourself with people that only think like you do, we are in deep trouble,” he said. “When we were kids, if there was a list of ten things and you didn’t agree on seven of them, you’re still my buddy. You’re a dipsh*t, but you’re still my buddy.” People who lack civility will have “Friends in No Places.”
Brooks #2: Arthur C. Brooks, Ph.D., is a professor at Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School. He teaches a popular course on “Leadership and Happiness” and also wrote Love Your Enemies to turn around what he calls the “culture of contempt.” His prescriptions are wise, albeit unconventional. “To bring America together, we shouldn’t try to agree more,” Brooks argues in the book. “There is no need for mushy moderation because disagreement is the secret to excellence.” The solution? What matters most is how we choose to act. In other words, the path forward is choosing to treat each other with love and respect despite our differences.
Alison Wood Brooks, Ph.D., is also a professor at Harvard Business School, where she teaches a course called “How to Talk Gooder in Business and Life.” Her course and research emphasize respect for opposing views, levity, asking questions, and varying topics as the keys to good (and civil) conversation. I recently heard her impressive lecture while attending my wife’s HBS reunion in June.
Rule #5: It’s never too late for civility to heal a fractured relationship.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson started out as friends. Then were enemies. Then they were friends again. In 1776, Adams and Jefferson became good friends while serving on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. Adams graciously insisted that Jefferson write it because, as he told Jefferson, “you can write ten times better than I can.”
Fast forward to 1800. President Adams was running for re-election against Jefferson. Things got ugly quick. Jefferson’s camp called Adams “a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, not the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” In return, Adams’ team called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow.” Jefferson won. Adams was bitter and skipped the inauguration ceremony. They didn’t speak for 12 years.
After a dozen years apart, they began writing letters to each other. They became friends again, remaining pen pals for the rest of their lives. They both passed away on the same day: July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
The lesson from our Founding Fathers is that it’s never too late. A renewed spirit of civility and friendship can heal even a fractured relationship.
And so, America, as we enter this election season, in the spirit of Adams and Jefferson, I propose a new kind of Declaration of Independence as we declare our independence from hate:
We hold these truths to be self-evident:
That divisive politicians, shouting talking heads, and Twitter trolls shall no longer tear us apart.
That love and respect are more powerful than hate and contempt.
That we listen with an open mind and act respectfully despite disagreement.
That we admit to one another we’re no good without each other.
That we find a way to come together and take the best and make it better.