Civility is More Than Good Manners

We must continue to underscore the concept of “civility” for democratic deliberation and political problem solving. It remains the case that too often civility is thought of as a simple nicety that makes things more pleasant and is the result of little more than good manners.

It is no accident that as civility declines in our polarized political culture argumentative complexity and sophistication suffers. So how do we attenuate this marked drop in civility and break the cycle of mutual incivility? How do we get both policymakers and ordinary citizens to at least approach the deliberative ideal? Alas, it is possible to make progress in this area.

Deteriorating civility causes citizens to be less trusting of democratic institutions. Institutions lose credibility and appear to be failing when they are characterized by diminished civility. Moreover, the spectacle of incivility draws attention away from the core content of the conflict. Citizens pay more heed to the displays of incivility than they do to the content of the messages exchanged between the conflicting parties. And, when participants in the democratic process are not paying attention to the core issues, they are more influenced by stereotypes and partisan cues which serve as reptilian responses that are not comprised of the thoughtfulness we desire during deliberation.

Three Tips on How To Be More Civil

Start with even a modicum of respect. Liberals often think conservatives are unevolved and less educated. And they waste no time communicating this. And conservatives believe liberals to be out of touch and naïve. Any conversation is going to be improved if I feel the warmth of your affection and respect. Everyone develops a political consciousness over time that is the result of multiple influences including family, education, social environment, and ethnopolitical identification. Take the time to understand, to quote the vernacular, “where someone is coming from”. Personally, I’m interested in why people believe what they do and how they came to those beliefs. Consequently, I find it useful, more respectful, and less likely to drift into extreme polarization if I ask questions and make contributions in a more engaged and circumscribed manner.

Listen fully, and don’t stop listening just when you hear something you disagree with. You have to treat yourself as a filter sifting through ideas but ultimately letting it all filter through before responding. Otherwise, you run the risk of quickly categorizing the other person and then never getting beyond those category boundaries. Civility will be emergent if the other person(s) in the conversation is convinced that they have your attention. Maintaining this attention, and the attendant civility, requires cognitive effort.

Ask a lot of open-ended questions. I am often surprised at the willingness of some people to blurt out an opinion that is clearly harsh and rigid with no consideration given to the context or presence of others. Just go to your neighborhood bar that has the news on television – a rarity these days for just the reason I’m talking about – and see how long it takes for somebody to curse at the screen and yell at Hillary Clinton, or Obama, or Trump. If I ask a question such as “What do you mean by that…” or “Tell me how you came to that conclusion…” or “What do you think about some issue” then these questions are going to open up the other person and require them to expand on challenging assertions and charges. Making confrontational accusatory statements or directly challenging the other result in two troublesome possibilities, namely, the categorization of the other which narrows the relationship between the two, or the perception of interpersonal threat which exaggerates differences and creates even wider gaps differentiating the two parties.

Learning civility helps people become explicable to each other and makes for deeper conversations. Ideally, the parties to the confrontation would engage in reciprocal conversation such that they would express themselves in a such a manner that they find out more about what they believe themselves. The interactional self finds its own image and the other in the network of interactions that he or she occupies. Civility is foundational. So, next Thanksgiving confront your right-wing uncle or your left-wing cousin in a manner consistent with the civility necessary for reflective conversation.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on December 30, 2020, in Civility. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Fischbach, Robert (Emeritus)

    Amen to all of that Don! Have you noticed that when you say “Thank you” these days that the response more often than not is “No Problem” rather than “You are welcome”? Wishing you and Karen a Happy New Year. Hope all is well. We are still battling post-surgery issues but making some progress. Otherwise it is major winter doldrums here. Best, Bob

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