Being Civil in a Time of Incivility

After reading two books recently that focus on civility in our public discourse, I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about and looking for examples of civility and incivility in various interactions online. What is civility? What causes incivility? What is the cost, if any, of being uncivil towards others in our public discourse? Where do we go from here?

What is civility?

I very much appreciate the way Justin Giboney and Michael Wear define this in their book, Compassion & Conviction.

Civility is mercy and forgiveness. It is a form of public grace.

Civility means giving others the benefit of the doubt, and remembering that those we interact with are also humans, not just a collection of pixels on a screen.

What causes incivility?

There are, of course, many things we could point to that may cause us or others online to act or speak in an uncivil way. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s easy to see that there are large groups of people on different sides of the many pressing issues of our day. From abortion to COVID-19 to election fraud, there’s no shortage of issues and opinions facing our nation, and more broadly, the world today.

At the root of all of this, the rise of tribalism among our political discourse stands out to me as a major factor in the incivility we see today. David Brooks defines tribalism well in his book The Second Mountain.

Tribalism is the dark twin of community.

Community is connection based on mutual affection. Tribalism is connection based on mutual hatred.

Real, authentic community seems to be lacking in our internet and social media augmented world, and tribalism has filled that void. Society has coalesced around political or ideological tribes which act as echo chambers, reinforcing the beliefs already in place. I would argue that the lack of community among differently minded individuals is leading to this incivility between opposing tribes instead.

These tribes, whether they be Republicans vs. Democrats or more broadly Conservatives vs. Liberals, tend to view the “other” as less than or not as enlightened about the topics of the day. Media often plays into this dehumanization of the “other” as well, further perpetuating the echo chamber of one’s own tribe.

What is the cost, if any, of being uncivil towards others in our public discourse?

This dehumanization or at the very least disgust that seems to dominate today only furthers the divides between opposing tribes, and is totally antithetical to the original plan for our democracy. Disagreement and discussion are good things when handled properly with civility, but our tribes have become so divided and closed-minded that we aren’t even able to disagree well anymore.

This plays out practically in the stalemates and inability to compromise we see in government today. Congress seems unable to legislate in many cases because neither side seems willing to compromise. Instead, the party in control of the Executive branch ends up legislating via Executive Order, which is no way to run a democracy that’s supposed to equitably represent its constituents.

Where do we go from here?

This is the question of the day, isn’t it? It’s easy to say that we should learn to disagree without dehumanizing, love your neighbor as yourself (even if they hold staunchly opposed views to your own), etc… But how do we put this into practice?

One easy way to start is to get more comfortable getting outside our comfort zones and echo chambers. Read a newspaper or website that you wouldn’t normally read. Turn the channel to one you wouldn’t normally watch. Have a meaningful conversation with that neighbor down the street or that family member that you’ve blocked on Facebook because of their annoying posts.

I think you’ll find that you have far more in common than you would like to think. You’re each dealing with the same struggles, sins, and worries. So go out of your way to be human and put aside the tribal differences of opinion. Love one another.

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