Have we lost the art of civility?

By Barbara Gutierrez

Have we lost the art of civility?

By Barbara Gutierrez
People are bombarded with news and information these days, providing opportunities for discourse that at times is not wholesome.

Watch television cable news, listen to YouTube rants and scan different social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter. A good amount of the discourse can seem disrespectful, even offensive.

Some experts claim that the increasing loss of civility in our public spheres—particularly around political issues—is the result of the digital age. It is simply easier to insult someone while staring at a computer screen. Is that really true? How do we develop civility?

One definition of civility is “claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.”

But can we regain civility as a society if indeed we have strayed from it?

News@TheU spoke with several experts and inquired as to their thoughts on the matter:

What is civility?

Individually, civility is the affording of others, respect and the assumption of positive intentions until or unless otherwise demonstrated. More broadly, civility is practiced in a democratic society when people and policies can advance an agenda that is designed for the greater public good.

- Laura Kohn Wood, dean of the School of Education and Human Development

Civility begins with what is often called the Golden Rule: we should treat others as we would want to treated. In a political argument or speech, for example, no one should resort to bullying, demeaning comments, threats or ad hominem attacks. One can argue a position and do so with great strength without being petty and mean. This is the essence of civility.

- Sam Terilli, associate professor and chair of journalism at the School of Communication

I rather like a mash-up of two of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of civility. The first is, “orderliness in a state or region; absence of anarchy and disorder.” The other one is, “behavior or speech appropriate to civil interactions; politeness, courtesy, consideration…the minimum degree of courtesy required in a social situation; absence of rudeness.”

- Michael McCullough, professor of psychology, College of Arts and Sciences 

What role does it play in society?

The loss of civility in society has both micro and macro effects, for example trigger-quick road rage for a traffic-related driving maneuver, or the inability to develop bipartisan agreement to address social issues.

- Laura Kohn Wood, dean of the School of Education and Human Development

Just as lawyers in court manage or channel their conflict legal position by following the rules of courtroom procedure and evidence, civility in society helps us manage or channel conflict to avoid the sort of demonization of one’s opponents that can ultimately lead to violence and a collapse of social norms.

- Sam Terilli, associate professor and chair of journalism at the School of Communication

An indispensable one. You don’t get civility as a state of society without civility as behavior or speech appropriate to civil interactions. As Lady Mary Wortley famously wrote, “Civility costs nothing and buys everything.”

- Michael McCullough, professor of psychology, College of Arts and Sciences

How has the level of civility changed over the last few years?

Not only does it appear that incivility has increased over time, there seems to be an accompanying sense of discomfort, fear and/or rage about changing dynamics in our society. The combination of the discourse of incivility with resistance to change, serves to reinforce divisions and reify traditional symbols and systems.

- Laura Kohn Wood, dean of the School of Education and Human Development 

Too many people today assume that people with different views are hopelessly lost and need to be punished and humiliated. We see new forms of narrow-minded tribalism in politics and this hurts what was once known as our civil society. It does not help when people see leaders resort to this sort of pettiness and demonization of others on the campaign trail all to get a laugh and a few votes.

- Sam Terilli, associate professor and chair of journalism at the School of Communication

It would be unfair to history to suggest that the decline started only a few years ago. Research shows that generalized trust has been falling in the U.S. since the 1960s, the percentage of people who believe their neighbors are honest and moral has been halved since the 1950s, and people are even running stop signs at a higher rate than they were 40 years ago. But the number of people who say they have encountered incivility somewhere in their daily lives has increased by 60 percent since Trump became president. One in 10 Americans today say they have experienced an uncivil interaction in the previous week. On the other hand—and this comes as a bit of a surprise to me—people say their workplaces are more civil now than before the Age of Trump.

- Michael McCullough, professor of psychology, College of Arts and Sciences

Is social media one of the major culprits of eroding civility in our society?

Like most things, social media contains examples of great civility and human connection, as well as divisive discourse and hate. It is a tool, and unfortunately a tool that can amplify the most negative aspects of society. This amplification gives previously hidden factions a great deal of power. It has been horrifically revelatory to see the nature and degree of hatred that is revealed when provided a platform.

- Laura Kohn Wood, dean of the School of Education and Human Development 

Yes, social media and digital communications tools generally are among the culprits. Typing outrageous and inflammatory attacks is too easy when it is the just you and your keyboard. Saying it to someone’s face is harder – not impossible, but not as easy. On the internet, too many forget that these are real people they are slamming. It reminds me of the difference between hand-to-hand combat among soldiers and carpet bombing from 30,000 feet in the air. If your enemy is an abstraction and not in front of your face, it is easy to forget he or she is human, too.

- Sam Terilli, associate professor and chair of journalism at the School of Communication

It just might be, but experiences of incivility online and in person have increased at about the same rates since January 2016.

- Michael McCullough, professor of psychology, College of Arts and Sciences

How can education and exposure to different groups help reestablish civility in our society?

Empirical evidence indicates that providing a structure for shared dialogue across differences builds empathy, insight, cognitive flexibility and results in positive relations with members of other social groups and identities. In addition to individual and group education, exposure and dialogue, however, there is a critical need to strongly rebuke hate and to restructure systems so that all sectors of society have genuine opportunities to thrive and contribute.

- Laura Kohn Wood, dean of the School of Education and Human Development 

Education, exposure…I think it can help. Students should meet others from all walks of life and engage in real conversations. The key is communication in the real world and in real time.

- Sam Terilli, associate professor and chair of journalism at the School of Communication

Social psychologists have known for decades that certain kinds of contact with people who hold different group identities than we do improve our feelings about those groups as a whole. However, for those sorts of contact experiences to make a difference, their importance has to be affirmed by people and offices that are vested with the authority to articulate what we should be aspiring to. And we’re not seeing a lot of that sort of leadership at the top these days.

- Michael McCullough, professor of psychology, College of Arts and Sciences