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Can Civility in Society Be Regained?

Causes of the the Decline of Civility in America

We’ve all personally experienced it – rudeness and discourteous behavior of others. It might be uncivil behavior in everyday life, such as using crude language, cutting in line, and road rage on the highway. Maybe it relates to a workplace situation: other people not listening to what we say, interrupting us, or having side conversations during our presentation. It some cases it is personal, such as insults, personal attacks, and emotional put-downs. It may even be taken to an extreme with harmful consequences to one’s personal self-esteem. This includes ranting against us on social media and cyberbullying.

The breakdown in civility can be attributed to the fact that basic manners and graciousness are no longer taught at schools or in the home. Societal examples only exacerbate the problem. All too many television shows depict folks acting badly, saying bad things -- a basic immaturity in relationships with others. Some movies make it worse because they are moronic, yet that appeals to a segment of society. Of course, social media gets most of the blame where so many look for their “fifteen minutes of fame” through offensive posts on their Facebook page, distasteful tweeting, poorly thought-out Instagram photos, and silly You Tube postings.

Approaching the issue from a philosophical point of view, Aristotle saw civility as a form of friendship, which he understood as a mutual feeling of good will. Aristotle believed that humans are capable of promoting another persons’ interest without regard for our own, and he ranked friendships according to their degree of intimacy and commitment. Character friendship may be purely selfless; advantage friendship is a mixture of self-interest with perhaps some altruism, and this is the basis of civil interaction.

By contrast, Thomas Hobbes believed that humans are incapable of sympathy with the interests of others; he said that we are ultimately motivated by self-interest in all of our acts. But recent experiments and theoretical developments have supported the view of David Hume, who believed that humans are naturally sympathetic, with our benevolence (or willingness to act selflessly) guided by such things as reason and custom.

The truth lies somewhere in-between. There are many good people out there who genuinely care about others and think about the consequences of their actions before making a final decision on how to act. At the other extreme, there are all too many who are driven by self-gratification and seem oblivious to the interests of others in decision-making.

One deep concern of mine is the growing incidents of incivility in the workplace. The 2013 edition of Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey by the global public relations firm Weber Shandwick uses the research conducted by KRC Research to measure incivility in America. The 2013 online survey found that 71 percent believe civility has declined in recent years and 54 percent expect the decline to continue. Politicians, America's youth, the media and the Internet are assigned most responsibility for the problem.

It seems to me incivility is becoming the new normal in our society. Unethical behavior underlies the incivility. Basic ethical values such as respect, fairness, honesty, responsibility and accountability have given way to hedonistic behavior that sometimes borders on narcissism.

One of the more worrisome workplace trends is the rise in Americans leaving their jobs because of incivility. From 2011 to 2013, there has been an increase in Americans reporting they quit a job because it was an uncivil workplace. This willingness to quit a job creates a threat to company reputation and imposes extra costs for replacing a workforce.

"Incivility can be the enemy of a collaborative culture," said Andy Polansky, CEO of Weber Shandwick. "We know that the key to a positive, productive, engaging culture is listening, understanding and responding to concerns about behavior quickly and ensuring that leadership sets the tone for meaningful, respectful interaction."

The survey found that more than one third of all Americans have personally experienced incivility at work, which undoubtedly has a negative impact on productivity and engagement. The survey also found:

  • 26% quit their job because of incivility at work;
  • 33% believe the tone of their workplace is uncivil;
  • 81% believe incivility is leading to more violence;
  • 95% believe we have a civility problem in this country.

Whether it’s random and senseless violence against another, road rage, cyber-bullying, or other offensive acts that are occurring with increased frequency in our society, the U.S., as a country, has lost its moral compass. I do not think it will be regained any time soon because we have fallen too far down the proverbial “ethical slippery slope” and the issues of ethical behavior in society, workplace ethics, and a strong work ethic are nowhere on the radar in this political campaign season. All too many are willing to "toot the horn" of American Exceptionalism without thinking about what makes for an exceptional person, society, or country.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 12, 2016. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: