The recent midterm elections have highlighted prime examples of the dark side of American politics — the lack of civility in political discourse. Today, political debates among candidates, pundits and even around the dinner table too often turn into shouting matches, name calling and insults. Social media has become a new frontier for ever-more-appalling insults. Compromise, once the backbone of American politics, has gone the way of the passenger pigeon.
As long-time Malden resident Pamela DeGroot lamented on a Facebook post, “First time in my 69 years that I am scared about the future of America …”
Citizen journalists for Malden’s Neighborhood View decided to examine the issue of civility and and explore the question: Just what does it take to be polite or kind in uncivil times?
MATV reached out to the community via Facebook by posting a question: “How do YOU feel about the tone of civil discourse today?” Maldonian Adam Goodwin responded: “It certainly feels like civil discourse is a lost art…discussion of any political or sensitive topics and can only be strengthened by truly listening to ‘the other side’ and considering their opinion rather than dismissing their feelings simply because that person or point of view is on ‘the other side’ from where you stand.”
Indeed, Malden residents, both young and old, expressed frustration, sadness and fear, about the lack of civil discourse displayed in daily interactions.
This echoes national trends. In a study conducted by Weber Shanwick, more than eight in ten Americans (84%) say they have at one time or another experienced incivility and in a wide variety of places and settings, most typically while shopping (39%), driving (39%) or while on social media (38%). Among those who report ever experiencing incivility, encounters are frequent, averaging 10.6 times per week. Online interactions slightly edge out in-person interactions (5.4 vs. 5.2). More disturbingly, the frequency of uncivil encounters has risen dramatically since 2016, according to the study.
Despite this information, Malden residents expressed hope for civil interactions among their neighborhoods. At the heart of all the messages was to just get back to the ”basics of civility”: try to listen, be polite, and remember the golden rule.
In our Facebook survey, Keith Bernard wrote: “I had a great conversation with a guy who voted No on all three questions (on the Mass. referendum). (And I was a yes on all three.) We disagreed but we never got ugly.” DeGroot was even more specific: ‘We need a leader who listens, support and encourages the citizens of the country to embrace our differences. We need to bring back respect.”
Locally, the City of Wilmington hosted a series this fall on “Revive Civility” at the Wilmington Public library. They offered residents workshops, listening groups, book discussions and a lecture by Dr. Lukensmyer from the National Institute of Civil Discourse who spoke about the causes of incivility and things people can do in their everyday lives to improve communications. The response to the event was overwhelmingly positive and residents felt informed and empowered to try “listening to learn” when speaking with each other.
Communications expert Michelle Woodward, a Master Certified Coach, and a former Reagan White House official and corporate executive, suggests that an important element to civil discourse is, “We have to temper our criticism and ask the simple question of ourselves: ‘Is what I’m going to say going to bring me into deeper relationship with another person, or am I really trying to prove I’m right?’ “
Wanting to be right all too often goes wrong and we have seen it in a multitude of ways.
Glen from our Facebook survey has noted this. “We don’t all need to agree all the time but we do need to reach common ground. It’s not rocket science,” he said.
How do we reach common ground? We reached out to an etiquette expert for answers. Marianne Cohen, a senior etiquette consultant and Assistant Director of the Malden Chamber of Commerce, said that we can “create pockets of civility in our everyday life.” Cohen suggested, “Try smiling at everyone you see. Pay kindness forward. Hopefully this gets us closer to where we need to be.” That sliver of hope is certainly what we need and perhaps if anything, we can have confidence that youth have the answers when adults don’t.
When asked what adults can learn from youth about being civil, local resident, 15-year-old Arianna White said, “People just need to listen more. There are basic life lessons everyone should know…stuff you learned as a kid. You should know the simple stuff. Golden rules- ABCs, 123s. Just be nice!”
Cohen likewise pointed to generational differences. “As children we are taught not to talk to strangers. As adults we are forced to talk to people we don’t know for business purposes or when negotiating our everyday lives. It comes down to basics like eye contact, a good handshake, and how to have a conversation.”
Moreover, “A good conversation is like a game of catch,” she said.
When asked about how to encourage civil discourse in a diverse city like Malden, City Councilor at Large Stephen Winslow said, “Be willing to engage with people different than yourself. When you speak, put aside any fear about being awkward and speak thoughtfully and authentically.”
He added, “When you listen, listen generously so that the speaker is comfortable.”
Here are some tips that we all can take to increase civility in our lives and our political discussions:
Stop, pause, and think before you speak, tweet or post. (Remember “netiquette” or online etiquette. Sometimes tone can be misread so be aware of that).
Try to listen without an agenda — suspend your judgements and think critically about your assumptions. Don’t just be thinking about what you want to say next. Choose to listen.
Don’t view a person with whom you disagree with as an adversary. Practice empathy. Be open to finding out their story.
If someone is being uncivil, don’t react with incivility. Rather, try to respond in a way that reflects that you have heard them. Try not to take their arguments personally. Or you can agree that you disagree and just walk away.
Even if you disagree, look for common ground. Like love of animals, our families, art, music, good food, or a common experience.
In face-to-face situations, don’t forget the basics. Smile or display openness through your facial expressions and body language.
Be aware that when someone’s opinion is rooted in feeling rather than fact it is unlikely you will change their mind. See this article about “Confirmation bias.”
For more ways you can practice civility, consider an activity from the National Institute for Civil Discourse, “Text, Talk, Civility Matters” which helps facilitate a conversation on civility in politics and our every day lives.
This story was compiled by Michelle Fahey, Felicia Ryan, Antonia Sheel, and Richard Sanon. It was edited by Stephanie Schorow and Anne D’Urso Rose.
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