Civility’s Lessons Start With Us And At Home

“Civility has worsened in the United State, and most people blame social media and the media generally,” the 2023 American Bar Association found. A definitive 85% of respondents said civility has declined over the past decade.

Many of us sense this declining civility and have had direct experience with it. It’s the profanity at the table next to your family at a restaurant or insults when your opinion differs from someone. We recently talked with a law enforcement officer who said the lack of civility today has made his job more challenging.

We see it especially in our politics. We say the cure is a greater willingness to compromise, but at the same time, we have a host of issues on which we do not budge. An old quote goes like this: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Courtesy, consideration, and politeness are parts of civil behavior, but it is much more. “We believe the call to civility is nothing short of a call to our shared humanity where respect, kindness, compassion, and dialogue grow out of a commitment to an ever-deepening understanding of self and others,” the Institute for Civility says. Our problem today is that too many only think of the self, a self where pride, ego, and righteousness dominate.

While 79% of those surveyed said it was important for government leaders to compromise rather than hold out for a complete win, too often people vote for the combative candidate rather than one who is civil.

People want to compromise, but not on issues they have the deepest feelings about – guns, abortion, gender equality, immigration, and voting rights.

Society’s uncivil behavior has accelerated in the past five years, with 88% of voters expressing “concern and frustration about the uncivil and rude behavior of many politicians,” according to Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service’s Civility Poll.

How do you stay civil when political success demands the opposite – when the successful candidate is the most combative and demeaning of the opposition?

There are perhaps multiple causes for today’s growing incivility in society. In its early years, social media, and the ability to anonymously comment on news sites unleashed the worst in some. They filled these forums with hate-filled and insulting rants. Social media companies now spend hundreds of millions to remove hate and misinformation but fail miserably.

In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putman shows that many social and recreational organizations we once participated in have nearly disappeared. “Americans have been dropping out in drives, not merely from political life, but from organized community life generally,” Putnam writes. “Year after year, fewer and fewer of us (take) part in the everyday deliberations that constitute grassroots democracy.”

In those clubs, committees, and social groups, citizens learned the skills of leadership, inclusiveness, and compromise. People with widely varying political views worked and played side-by-side. They saw one another as good people with different views of life and politics. Mutual caring and respect were the foundations of compromise and civility.

Without these social and recreational groups. too often, our sense of belonging is deep within our political clans. They provide recognition and praise and give a person a sense of importance. This status can be easily moored to civil and ethical leadership as it is to one built on cruel exclusion, where outsiders are enemies, and all is fair. Combative personalities seem to be more admired these days than civil ones.

We’ve heard for a decade now how rural white anger is the root cause for growing division and extremism in America. We are becoming a more racially and socially diverse country, and that threatens the white-dominated power structure of the past. Conservative, religious rural Americans reject these changes, at times with threats of violence, we are told.

Finally , we see the growing income inequality in America and seek candidates who promise to improve our lives. The problem has been that when choosing political sides, social and religious issues override economic policy.

These issues may be the root of why we are seeing a rise of “hatred, anxiety, and despair.” David Brooks writes in a column about his book How America Got Mean. But there is another factor, he says. “The most important story about why Americans have become sad and alienated and rude, I believe, is also the simplest: We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained to treat others with kindness and consideration.”

“In a healthy society, a web of institutions – families, schools, religious groups, community organizations, and workplaces – helps form people into kind and responsible citizens, the sort of people who show up for one another. We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation,” Brooks says.

Ninety percent of those surveyed said parents and family have the most influence and responsibility for “instilling civility in children.” What happens when incivility and an uncompromising attitude are taught at home? Children learn through their incredible powers of observation and by absorbing the conversations and attitudes of those who raise them.

Those who would improve civility are too often preaching to the choir. Their message isn’t heard by those who most need to learn the lessons of civility.

We are all jaded skeptics these days. We see too much hypocrisy. It undermines the character of people, political parties, and religious institutions. Political gain, retaining power, and forcing their will on others rank higher than ethical and moral foundation. When everything is self-serving, and nothing holds true to principle, and it becomes a winning formula – civility is for losers.

What are we doing to train the heart to be more civil? “We learn most virtues the way we learn crafts, through the repetition of many small habits and practices, all within a coherent moral culture – a community of common values, whose members aspire to earn one another’s respect,” Brooks writes.

Teaching civility is learned through example. It starts with each of us.