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What Has Happened to Civility in Society Today?

Updated on December 23, 2017
Carolyn M Fields profile image

Carolyn Fields is a lifelong learner, musician, author, world traveler, truth enthusiast, and all-around bon vivant.

Civility Defined

Let’s start with a definition of civility. According to Tomas Spath and Cassandra Dahnke, Founders of the Institute for Civility in Government, civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. It goes beyond mere politeness, although being polite is a good starting point.

It is, as they put it, hard work. It requires staying present (i.e., not boycotting and walking out), even when those who have radically different ideas about life are voicing their opinions. You must set aside your preconceptions, and listen with respect. And others must do the same for you.

Today's Society

I don’t see much civility in our public discourse today. In fact, I have been deeply troubled by what I read and see in the news of late. One particularly distressing message was from Trinity College Professor, Johnny Eric Williams. In the case of Rep. Steve Scalise’s shooting on June 14th, he proposes that the Emergency Responders should have “let him die.” And his reason? Because he (Scalise) is white. And supposedly he is also an “inhuman asshole.” He (Johnny) goes on to say that you should not only let white people die, you should also “smile a bit when you do.”

Really? From what I know about Rep. Scalise, he is a decent man. He has conservative values, for sure. But he doesn’t beat his wife or sell drugs to inner city youth. What exactly makes him an asshole? Apparently, the mere fact that he is white.

Has our society really gone from “diversity and inclusion,” to this sort of hate speech as the norm? It would seem so. I hear example after example in the news and on social media. There is no decency. There is no civility.

Other Examples

Rep. Scalise’s shooting is, most unfortunately, only one recent example of hateful, vile, disrespectful, and uncivil societal behavior. Let me remind us all of just a few more examples:

  • We all know about Kathy Griffin and the photo shoot of her holding what appeared to be the bloodied and dismembered head of President Trump. For the most part, she received condemnation for this career-ending stunt. But it wasn’t universal. Some are still defending her for her “free speech.” Really? That was speech? Ricky Gervais called it “a bit crass and thoughtless, but who cares?” No civility here.
  • The production of Julius Caesar in Central Park, New York, depicting a Trump look-alike being brutally stabbed to death is another example. Sponsors have withdrawn funding, but not everyone is convinced this was wrong. Artistic Director, Mr. Eustis has this to say about the play: “Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means,” he writes. “To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.” So, apparently, we are all over-reacting.
  • Lest you think that all the incivility is political, let me point to another example completely outside of politics. Remember Dr. David Dao, who was dragged off a United Airline flight early in April? Not only was his treatment brutal, all the other passengers just sat there and filmed the incident. Nobody tried to help him. That is the part that is unbelievable to me.

The list goes on and on. It runs the gamut from road rage, to failing to observe a moment of silence for victims of terror at a sporting event. It’s ubiquitous.

What About The Workplace?

Interestingly, the workplace is an unlikely refuge from the pervasive and offensive behavior we see in our social activities and events. In a recent survey (the Civility in America poll conducted by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate with KRC Research), a full 86% of Americans said that their place of employment was civil. Apparently, people are more civil at work than outside of work. Some cite financial motivations, others point to the need for collaboration at work for this difference. Whatever the reason, it gives me hope that there are situations and incentives that might address our severe civility deficit.

Can We Change Course?

One thing I do know about the United States of America, we are a resilient society. Despite the despicable behavior we have witnessed recently, I believe the voices of outrage are beginning to be heard. Parents need to teach their children, and adults need to demonstrate simple human kindness, at every available opportunity.

Want some ideas? How about these:

  • When someone is speaking, giving an opinion that differs from your own, actively listen to what they have to say (as opposed to merely waiting for your turn). Validate that you have heard them. Then, and only then, offer your ideas and opinions on the subject.
  • Refrain from vulgar and explicit language. Just don’t use those words in public. It may sound like a little thing, but honestly, do we really need any more “f bombs” in our public discourse?
  • Give others the benefit of the doubt. Don’t jump to conclusions that their intent is evil or sinister. Don’t prejudge.

There are my top three. What are yours? I’d love to see them in the comments below.

And do, by all means, Have a Nice Day!

What is your opinion of civility in America today?

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