Has America Lost Her Civility?

CivilityOn November 8, I will vote for the first time in a presidential election. And that experience, which I have waited 16 years for, will always be overshadowed by what happened to me this spring. In March, I voted in my first primary. After I voted, I came back to my office and tweeted out that I had voted. I received an immediate response from someone on Twitter. He asked me who I voted for. I replied. His response:

You’re another dumb black who voted against their interests.

To him, I was a “dumb black.”  I, of course, researched him online. If his Twitter name is his real name, he’s a high school student at an all-boys private school on the East Coast where he plays on the lacrosse team. All that means is that he probably has my alma mater – Princeton University – on his college radar. If and when he gets there, I wonder, will his form of civility be the outlier, or the norm?

My First Presidential Election

I first moved to the United States when I was eighteen years old. It was September of 2000, and I arrived as a freshman at Princeton University in the midst of one of the most contentious elections in recent memory. The floor of my residential college was fairly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Through those few heady months of fall, we would debate the merits of the presidential candidates. We argued about their approaches to the economy, to war, to religion, and crucially for this new immigrant, to foreign affairs. Our debates were heated but civil, and while I often questioned my friends’ views of the world, here are things I never questioned – their kindness, their integrity, their judgment, and their humanity.

That November, Al Gore won the presidency. At least that’s what every news outlet reported. After the midnight announcement, half of us went to bed depressed, the other half of us ecstatic. A few short hours, of course, this would all be reversed. And through the months of hanging chads, recounts, court hearings (and in my case, my first ever bout of chicken pox), my hallmates and I argued over what decision would be the best for this country. We said many things, but here are things we never said. We never said George W. Bush should be killed, that Al Gore was a corrupt crook, that the Florida Republicans were fascists, or that anyone was a nasty woman, a devil, a deplorable, or a traitor. I didn’t call anyone a “stupid redneck” and no one called me a “dumb black.”

And we weren’t exchanging those insults because we were “thin-skinned,” “too politically correct” or “couldn’t take a joke.” No, we weren’t saying those things because we held on to two universal truths of debate – civility and respect. We were civil because we respected our opponent, and because we respected our opponent, we were civil.

Is America Less Civil?

It’s hard to pin down when civility and respect lost their way in American discourse. One strand of thought argues that we’ve never really been civil to each other. Any casual Hamilton fan could tell you all about the insults, published and unpublished, back in the 1700s. In fact, if you type “What happened to civility?” into Google, you’ll get articles that cover several decades.

However, the perception is that civility has certainly declined. A recent report, Civility in America, found that 95 percent of Americans believe that incivility is a problem. 70 percent believe that it has reached crisis levels, up from 65 percent in 2014. 76 percent say that incivility makes it difficult to even discuss controversial issues, and because of incivility, 64 percent of people have stopped paying attention to political debates.

See, we are tired. We’re tired of the name calling, the insults, the mud-raking, the lowest common denominator that seems to have infested our political climate. It’s the exhaustion by many in America at the constant sniping and negativity that led to the sudden applause for debate townsperson, Karl Becker, who simply asked the presidential candidates, “[W]ould either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?”

Why Is America Less Civil?

The reasons why we are less civil than before are well-known. As Christian Science Monitor reported from a panel discussion, gerrymandering means that in Congress, members represent safe districts and have little incentive to find common ground with another party. And thanks to outside financing, political parties no longer have a stranglehold on cash, or decorum. Then there’s the media, in all its multiple manifestations. The talking heads on cable television, the click-bait and sensationalism, the need to feed the 24-7 news cycle with any news, whatsoever, and the certain knowledge that it’s often the polarized views that get attention.

Of course, social media, that echo chamber of ideas, certainly takes a large share of the blame. As the Cincinnati Enquirer writes, the world of online political discourse is one where “opponents are liars or felons, the media are in cahoots with one side or the other, and civil conversation is interrupted by photo-shopped images of Trump peering out of a sewer or Clinton wearing prison stripes.”

I’m sure all of us, particularly those with Facebook, can list similar examples of mean-spirited condemnations. Here’s one that struck me however. A recent Chicago Tribune article reported on the Facebook comments of a man running for an elected office in New Lenox township:

As Hillary talks I hear, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie. YOUR NOTHING BUT A LIER!!!!!!!!!!!! Quit talking and saying what you think everyone wants to hear. The only thing I want to hear from her is SILENCE!!!!!!!

The Tribune journalist then wrote that he believes the election will be a turning point for the majority of us who reject the incivility overcoming American political discourse.

This, I believe, is what the majority of Americans want from their elected leaders. People want displays of character, decency and honor that uphold the dignity of the office and command respect from our allies and foes alike around the world.

So I did some research. The majority of Americans do want their leaders to be more civil, and the debate to have more decorum, right? Turns out, I was wrong.

Americans Want More Incivility in Politics

That may sound counter-intuitive, but that’s what a recent survey by Allegheny College concluded. The survey revealed what the college termed “chilling trend lines” for civility in America. The survey focused on comparing responses from 2010 and 2016. It found that in 2016, Americans wanted more incivility from their politicians and in their political discourse than they had six years prior.

For example, in 2010, 89% of respondents said commenting on another’s race or ethnicity in a political engagement was not acceptable. In 2016, that number dropped a full 20 points to 69%. Similarly, in 2010, 81% said commenting on someone’s sexual orientation was not acceptable. 2016? 16 point drop to 65%. Here’s another: in 2010, 85% of voters believed that elected officials should be friends with members of other political parties. Six years later, only 56% of people believe that should be the case.

But probably the most disheartening finding was this table, on what survey respondents think is not acceptable in politics.

Not Acceptable 2010 2016
Interrupting someone you disagree with in a public forum 77% 51%
Shouting over someone you disagree with during an argument 86% 65%
Belittling or insulting someone 89% 74%
Personal attacks on someone you disagree with 87% 71%
Questioning someone’s patriotism because they have a different opinion 73% 52%

Take a look at that last one again, questioning someone’s patriotism because they have a different opinion. In 2010, 73% of people thought that was unacceptable. In 2016, only 52% of people believe the same. If I hold a different opinion from you, I am no longer just your opponent. I am not even an American.

Why America Needs Civility

In his acceptance speech for the 2016 Universal Peace Project Peace Prize, Catholic philosopher George Wiegel spoke of St. Augustine’s “tranquility of order,” a democratic order based on pluralism and tolerance.

Pluralism is not mere difference – the fact that men and women have different opinions. Genuine pluralism means an orderly public conversation about those differences … Such a conversation, in turn, requires tolerance. And tolerance does not mean avoiding differences or denying differences, but engaging and exploring differences within a bond of civility and respect. That bond can only be built on the foundation of convictions about the dignity of every human being.

I am not a dumb black. Democrats are not un-American traitors. Republicans are not racist hicks. And that 16-year old boy on Twitter is not my enemy, nor am I his. I have to think like that. Otherwise I am doing a disservice to the democracy that I swore three years ago to uphold. I believe in civility. I believe in respect. And I believe in our American civilization, the root of which remains civility. So I have two choices. I can take the easier road of shouting at, insulting, demeaning, and belittling those who disagree with me. Or I can take the much harder road of listening with civility, responding with respect, and holding on to an unshakeable belief in human dignity. Come what may November 8, that second road is the one I will take.

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn

One thought on “Has America Lost Her Civility?

  1. The increasingly coarse nature of civil discourse in America frightens me as well.

    I blame Twitter for some of this — 140 characters is barely enough for a slogan or an insult — certainly not enough for explanation or nuance. And yet it is becoming a primary means for the ‘exchange’ of opinions.

    But, of course, Twitter is not the only explanation.

    I hope to write more about this in the coming days. I will link back to your post here.

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