“Being civil is much more than just artificial niceties.”
Sadly, the recent impassioned exchanges between presidential contenders in next year’s election appear to reflect a lack of civility among the aspirants for the highest office of the land. Discourteous language seems to have sidelined respectful dialogue and thwarted a supposedly healthy exchange of diverse viewpoints.
In fact, many candidates find it easy to point out and criticize incivility in their opponents, while being blind to, and silent about, the same flaws in themselves and their political supporters. Worse, once a candidate sees an opponent acting in an uncivil manner, one makes no qualms retaliating in return. As a result, people tend to be overly sensitive to apparent incivility from those who oppose them, yet often feel free to respond with incivility themselves.
The word, “civility” comes from the Latin “civilis,” meaning befitting a citizen. Literally, it means upholding the morals and the culture of being a citizen, or as Merriam-Webster defines it in a contemporary sense – “polite, reasonable and respectful behavior.”
But as a political virtue, civility is much more than superficial courtesy or politeness. It requires upholding the political ideal that despite our differences and plurality, we can still engage with each other as citizens of a common world. It means to disagree without disrespect and to seek common ground as a starting point for dialogue. Civility requires the hard work of having an open mind to listen despite one’s preconceptions, and reaching out even to those one may have deep-rooted and fierce disagreement.
Unfortunately, civility among politicians seems to be in short supply nowadays. In debating differing viewpoints and disagreeing ideas, people tend to see one another, not simply as merely mistaken, but being actually in the wrong. They are often locked into their own prejudices and quick to antagonize those who believe otherwise.
The sad state of our country’s political affairs cannot be denied. Name calling, bullying and intimidation have become commonplace, even in the very halls of political power. Deepening political divisions have resulted in people on opposite sides of the political fence, not only disagreeing but actually disliking, and at times hating the other side.
Many would say that maintaining civility in politics is not only difficult but is actually impossible. The negativity in political discourse is commonly believed to be one of the natural by-products of a pluralistic society. After all, it is – as they would say – “politics as usual.”
However, civility is much more than just artificial niceties. It basically outlines the “rules of the game” for negotiating inevitable disagreements as people strive to maintain social order, and to cooperate on matters of public interests. In fact, civility is the surest guarantee that while everyone cannot completely agree on what is right and good for society, upholding the fundamental values of respect, courtesy, transparency and tolerance is necessary in preserving and promoting the common good.
The truth is democracy depends on the willingness of people to engage within a marketplace of diverse ideas. A functioning government is made possible only through the ability of political leaders to work together despite their differences in beliefs and opinions, and to find a common ground for shared action. This ultimately requires the ability and openness to listen to one another and to work together, and to use their words and actions to persuade, rather than divide.
The apparent erosion of civility in today’s political discourse is a cause for alarm. This endemic rashness of political discourse should no longer be tolerated. It is sad to note how many politicians are far too willing to cast intrigues, make threats or otherwise fan the flames of hatred and mistrust. Especially during elections, uncivil behavior is often rewarded politically with undue attention, without regard for the cumulative damage of normalizing these behaviors. In the end, the substantive issues of the day such as poverty, injustice and progress are overlooked in favor of negativity and bitterness.
It is undeniable that the advent of the internet, with its no-holds-barred rhetoric, a more real-time, widespread and intense exchange of insults and personal attacks, and handheld devices that allow us to be in our own space pretty much all the time – have fueled further the erosion of basic civility. Many of the so-called “social media” have enhanced our ability to be asocial in screening out every element of our culture and politics that doesn’t suit us. As a result, many are rarely exposed to alternative views, which easily leads to a rhetoric of intolerance.
In an age where fact and opinion have become blurred for many, there is even a greater need for civility in politics. It is important to note that civility does not imply that all opinions have equal merit. It does not mean compromising one’s values or prematurely concluding that agreement is certain or required. On the other hand, it also includes engaging in robust and respectful debate, and actively listening to various viewpoints without attacking one’s character. A society that fails to express and engage with itself with civility, and accordingly address disagreements and differences with respect, honesty and tolerance becomes an antithesis to what democracy truly is.