Civility is on Life Support
Civility is derived from the Latin word for “citizen.” Synonyms include terms like courtesy, politeness, and good manners. Incidents, like a billionaire investor shoving a professional basketball player, Congressional hearings that sound more like Hollywood roasts, a president calling public servants “losers,” and LBGTQ+ youth mocked mercilessly online to the point of suicide, would lead many Americans to believe civility is dead. Maybe civility is just going through a historic cycle.
Feeding Christians to lions was certainly not civil behavior in A.D. 64; nor was attacking Black voters with dogs in 1964. Incivility has been around throughout history. In politics, those who think today’s tactics are vile, should know there were campaign slogans like “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” used to highlight candidate Glover Cleveland’s alleged illegitimate fatherhood in 1884.
There are several reasons that it seems to be a bigger issue now. The anonymity of the Internet has emboldened people to turn their thoughts into hateful tweets. Civics and the art of debate are no longer boring, but necessary, features of school curricula. There used to be a fear of being humiliated for behaving badly. Now, the only time “shame” suffered by anyone seemed to be Cersei’s in Game of Thrones’ Season 5. Economic inequality between rich and poor is exasperating blame, scapegoating, and bullying.
One difference now, though, may be that public strategies are being developed to return to some sense of civility.
Indiana celebrated its third annual World Civility Day on April 12. The National Civility Foundation was formed to put “a national focus on the ways we can show kindness and exhibit respectful behavior to others.” Weber State University and Ogden City created the Civility Quest Challenge for their residents.
Most recently, the new mayor of the City of Phoenix—Kate Gallego—issued a proclamation declaring June 8, 2019, as Phoenix Day of Civility. Phoenix, which has been the fastest growing city in the US the past three years, acknowledges that civil discourse and dialogue—the hallmarks of American democracy—are being threatened by “an increased coarsening of our culture.” Phoenix advocates civility training throughout local communities and public places. r. Clyde Rivers, a UN representative and Spokesperson for the World Civility Day, and Dr. Vernet Joseph, CEO of Live to Produce Enterprises, have recognized Phoenix with a “Civility City of the Year 2019” award.
In 2018, Hillary Clinton said “I believe if we are fortunate enough to take back the House and or the Senate, that’s when civility can start again.” Despite the House takeover and efforts by a progressive group called Indivisible to get the Democratic Presidential candidates to sign a “Unity” pledge to be positive and constructive, it is naïve to think that politicians will ever be the role models for civility.
But, like expressing “hopes and prayers,” it will take accountability and actionability on the part of all Americans to implementthese proclamations and initiatives. Most people long for everyone to remember what his/her mom advised: “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” It will be up to every citizen to advocate and practice civility.