“Civility is about more than just politeness, although politeness is a necessary first step. It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. Civility is the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. It is political in the sense that it is a necessary prerequisite for civic action. But it is political, too, in the sense that it is about negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s is ignored.”
Not long ago, the talk within state governments was the need for civil discourse. Those on the unsuccessful side of many issues drove much of this effort, but, nonetheless, it was an important topic to broach. Across the country, many different states invited national organizations to do workshops with legislators. The topics were standard fare for most contemporary self-help classes and included: how to listen actively, how to respond with empathy, and positive affirmation. All of this failed to deal with the underlying problems of societal disconnect and radical individualization. Some, who are more accustomed to engaging in this type of environment, raved about the process. Most, however, went through the paces, and quickly retreated back to work when the seminar was over.
The majority within state government act respectfully and professionally with their colleagues. There is often collaboration and consultation between individuals within the majority and minority parties, despite having strong ideological differences on most fronts. There will be debating of ideas certainly, but always within the rules of decorum, and rarely will one encounter disparaging comments about others or ad hominem attacks.
Since Obama’s call for civility in 2010, the public has visibly become more polarized and uncivil. There is a manipulation that comes with being the one calling for civility. It automatically implies that those who oppose you are being uncivil, and can suggest a claim to the moral high ground. Since that time, the disparaging of one side of the political spectrum, and the following of “Rules for Radicals” on the other side, has left little space for the true merits of ideas to be discussed. A media famished for controversy and hoping to shape a cultural norm that they support has magnified this divide. Distrust, misinformation, and instability are dangerous social components with untold ramifications, and we appear to be maturing in our antagonism, as opposed to receding from it. The rift is evidenced by the latest presidential campaign, and is exacerbated by those opposed to the new administration.
What can quell the growing storm of discontent? If both sides continue to try and outdo each other in regard to uncivil behavior, our political endeavors will be simply about acquiring power in order to subjugate our opponents. An effort to subdue an emotional response, coupled with a civility that allows for rigorous investigation of ideas will result in better discussions, and inevitably lead to improved government.
“All Politeness is owing to Liberty. We polish one another, and rub off our Corners and rough Sides by a sort of amicable Collision. To restrain this, is inevitably to bring a Rust upon Men’s Understandings.”
The Earl of Shaftsbury, 1709
Sage Dixon represents District 1B, covering Bonner and Boundary counties.