Building a More Civil Society Through Civil Discourse
The Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary defines civility as polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior. Linda Fisher Thornton, a leading voice in ethical leadership, suggests that “these behaviors are the ones we use when we treat others with care,” thereby linking civility with ethical behavior through The Golden Rule: Treat others the way we would wish to be treated.
Civility is about more than just politeness. 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. Indeed, “civility represents a long tradition of moral virtues essential to democracy. Virtues like empathy, humility, integrity, honesty, and respect for others are ideals of democratic engagement.” Without civility a society can morph into verbal, accusatory, offensive verbal attacks on one another which is the way things are headed in the U.S.
Civility on College Campuses
The Institute for Civility in Government takes a broad view of civility and defines it as “claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.” It seems today, more than ever before, we are witnessing uncivil behavior. We hear about one group of people with a distinct point of view making offensive comments to others with an opposing view. Protesters in our streets are kept at arms-length by the police to avoid violent behavior that might harm others. On college campuses, we increasingly hear about some students shouting down or walking out on speakers because they don’t like the message. What’s lost is the ability to have a productive dialogue about our differences. In a 2017 survey of civility on college campuses by Gallup, 61 percent of students, up from 54 percent in 2016, say campus climate prevents people from speaking freely because others might find them offensive. Supporters of civility on campus must stand up for what they believe and promote civil dialogue.
I am concerned that the long-standing academic tradition of free speech on college campuses has given way to the ‘no platform’ policy to keep off campus pretty much anyone whose views don’t coincide perfectly with the prevailing groupthink. Some students insulate themselves from anything that might dent their self-esteem and issues that make them uncomfortable. How will they ever grow and learn? What will happen when they enter the workplace and deal with different points of view?
Civility in Society
An annual poll on civility in society by Weber Shandwick continues to show that a vast majority of Americans – 93 percent – identify a civility problem in society, with most classifying it as a “major” problem (69 percent). More than eight in 10 Americans (84%) have at least at one time or another experienced incivility and in a wide variety of situations, most typically while shopping (39%), while driving (39%), or while on social media (38%).Rude behavior and offensive gestures seem on the rise driven by a lack of civility. Given the scope of incivility in our daily lives, each of us should look for ways to decrease these negative behaviors that can cause distress to ourselves and others. If we don't, there will continue to be a growing problem with cyberbullying that sometimes leads to suicide, especially among the young.
Civility in the Workplace
Civility in the workplace is a growing problem. A study by Christine Porath indicates that the percent of employees who report being treated rudely by colleagues at least once a month has risen by 13 percentage points from 1998 (49%) to 2016 (62%). The costs of incivility rise as employee stress levels increase leading to diminished employee performance and increased employee turnover. Uncivil behavior threatens harmony in the workplace and can lead to attacks by one employee on another through social media.
The study suggests the most important attribute that garnered commitment and engagement from employees was respect from their leaders. The research found that those getting respect reported much higher levels of health and well-being; derived greater enjoyment, satisfaction, and meaning from their jobs; and had better focus and a greater ability to prioritize. Those feeling respected were also much more likely to engage with work tasks and more likely to stay with their organizations. The study concludes that when organizations address these issues systematically, more civility will follow.
Civility and Ethics
Civility cultivates a civic code of decency. It requires us to discipline our impulses for the sake of others. It demands we free ourselves from self-absorption. Civility is that moral glue without which our society could come apart. By committing to ethical behavior, we can help bring civility back to society.
One way to build a better, more civil society is to advance the cause of greater ethics. We need to think about how our actions affect others in the context of how we would wish to be treated in similar situations. This requires looking inside ourselves to understand the difference between right from wrong; good from bad, and then acting in accordance with our beliefs which should be driven by moral virtues.
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 22, 2018. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter.