incivility: the problem behind that problem

Most Americans believe that civility is important in politics and perceive that it has declined, especially if they listen to the radio and/or pay close attention to politics. Half believe that there has been a decline in the tone of politics since Barack Obama was elected [survey by Dan Shea and colleagues: PDF].

But it is not clear that incivility is the root problem. One person’s passion–or righteous indignation–is another’s incivility. It’s easy to find websites in which the author interprets a charge of incivility as an effort to silence the people on his side of the political spectrum. During the civil rights era, respectable opponents of the movement typically accused its leaders of ignoring “the civilities” in order to block their progress.

Even if we can agree that an utterance is uncivil, that is not necessarily an argument against it. Civility can conflict with other values, such as freedom of speech.

Finally, blatant incivility is nothing new in public life. In the election of 1800, John Adams’ “men called Vice President Jefferson ‘a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.’” The incentives in a competitive political campaign have usually favored nastiness–and competition is healthy.

What has changed is the lack of an everyday alternative. I think Americans are responding to a lack of constructive civic engagement in their own communities.

Unions, religious congregations, and neighborhood and membership organizations have all shrunk dramatically since 1970. People are substantially less likely to work on community projects and to attend meetings than they were a generation ago. Newspaper readership has fallen at a similar pace. Jury service plays a shrinking role. School districts have been consolidated to the extent that the proportion of Americans who serve on a school board is down by 95%.

As a result, we cannot react to a nasty fight on the television news by telling ourselves, “That is not how we get along in our community.” Increasingly, we are not involved in the business of our own communities. Because we lack experience making decisions about public matters with fellow citizens who are different from ourselves, we are in no position to judge the quality of arguments among leaders or to choose representatives who are good at dialogue. We cannot distinguish between rudeness and passion, or between obfuscation and complexity.

Civil society is in grave condition, measured not by the proportion of talk that is “civil” (for which no statistics exist) but by the sheer rate of participation in voluntary organizations that involve talk. People are less likely to participate in discussions, and especially discussions that draw diverse citizens and that have meaningful impact on public life.

We are withdrawing from such conversations, by, for example, deliberately enacting policies that disempower juries, school boards, and other local bodies; by choosing to live in politically homogeneous communities; and by leaving multi-purpose, diverse organizations for single-issue lobbies and narrowly-defined professional organizations.

Some of the symptoms of this withdrawal include alienation from public life (with Congress holding a 9% approval rate) and pervasively manipulative communications. Our first instinct now is to develop a “message” to persuade masses of other people to our view—rather than initiate a conversation to decide what would be best. It’s in an environment of dueling “messages” broadcast to passive citizens that incivility feels so toxic.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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