Civility is in Decline
What Can We Do About It?
It will come as no surprise to the readers of my blogs that I believe civility is in decline. In a 2021 blog, I examined some of the examples of the lack of civility in society including:
- Smash and grab incidents.
- Mass shootings.
- Random acts of violence.
- Skirmishes that break out between two or more people in the streets or on airplanes.
- Lenient sentences for burglary and property destruction.
- Lack of decency and respect in society.
- Lack of ethical leaders who model civility, including those in the political realm.
- Pursuit of self-interest rather than the interest of society.
I could add some more but, instead, I want to address just what civility means, the results of a recent survey that clearly show it is in decline, and what, if anything, we can do to “right the ship.”
By age sixteen, George Washington had copied out by hand, 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. They are based on a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595. Rules of Civility was a list of 110 rules for people to follow. These rules dealt with different situations, such as how to be respectful to people, how to be polite when dining with others, and how to behave. Here is the first rule: Every Action done in Company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present. Respect is an integral part of civility.
All too often one person or group of people is disrespectful to another group that does not agree with their point of view. As a result, that person/group may fall victim to the “cancel culture,” whereby they are shunned or made to feel guilty for their position. If a person in the offended group does not support the cancel culture view, then they, too, may be cancelled.
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 have been headed in the U.S. for many years.
Civility represents the quality of our behavior with others in our communities. This is important because how we treat others signals who we are and what we value. Moreover, since the essence of ethics lies in how we are with others, civility and ethics are intricately linked.
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. By putting ethics into practice in our day-to-day encounters, civility is that moral glue without which our society would come apart.”
Moral civility demands two things: (1) that we respect other people’s fundamental rights, liberties, and equal civic standing, for example by avoiding racist and discriminatory speech and behavior and (2) Justificatory civility that requires that we refrain from justifying political rules based on self-interested or sectarian reasons.
Civility Survey Results
Most Americans believe society is less civil now than it was a decade ago, and they blame social media and public officials for that decline, according to a new poll by the American Bar Association.
Fully 85% of the 1,000 respondents of the ABA’s annual Survey of Civic Literacy said civility in today’s society is worse than 10 years ago, while 8% said it was better and 6% said it was worse. When asked to cite the primary factor in declining civility, 29% said social media, 24% said media, 19% said public officials, and 8% said the educational system. Just 2% of respondents chose courts. “Our country is experiencing a period of divisiveness,” said ABA President Deborah Enix-Ross.
More than a third of those polled—34%—said family and friends should hold the primary responsibility for improving civility in society, while 27% said that responsibility should fall to public officials. And 90% of respondents said parents and families are most responsible for instilling civility in children, followed by schools at 6%. Here are additional results.
- 79% want compromise from political leaders.
- 29% point to social media as cause of diminishing civility.
What Does the Future Hold?
I wish I could say the future is positive and we can reverse the trend of declining civility. However, I’d have to be a "cockeyed optimist," to do so. Call me a cynic if you like but I expect things to get worse before they get better.
Most people in Congress do not have the stomach to deal with these issues. They would rather insult each other, especially those in one party calling out those in the other for a point of view different from their own.
I don’t disagree with expressing another point of view in public or on social media but like so many things in life, it is the way you do or say things, rather than the actions themselves, that shows your true character. We need to learn to say and take actions that do not provoke another person or group of people with an opposing point of view but, instead, seeks to engage them in constructive dialogue.
Some in society fear upsetting one group or another with divergent views on social and political issues. In addition to the cancel culture, we now have a “woke culture” that has divided the country in ways from which we may never recover.
Woke nowadays refers to being aware or well informed in a political or cultural sense, especially regarding issues surrounding marginalized communities - it describes someone who has “woken up” to issues of social injustice. The right often criticizes the left for “wokeness.” This is counter-productive. It only stokes the flame of fire. Let us debate differences and not label others with such a broad stroke.
The Golden Rule guides people to choose for others what they would choose for themselves. The Golden Rule is often described as 'putting yourself in someone else's shoes', or 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you'. It is this kind of giving attitude that can lead us to reclaim the moral high ground as a nation.
One reason civility is in decline is the lack of education in our schools. Students get their manners from parents who all too often are disengaged and not setting an ethical example. They get it from listening to disrespectful dialogue on television, in the movies, and elsewhere, or on social media. The schools need to counter those effects. If we don't educate students to be civil to one another, how will we ever proclaim the moral high ground?
Absent the existence of a messiah who can redirect the country to its roots of kindness, empathy, and civility, and following The Golden Rule, I doubt that things will get better before they get worse.
Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on May 2, 2023. You can sign up for Steve’s newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website (https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/). Check out professional recommendations on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/steven-mintz-aka-ethics-sage-98268126/.