In These Divided Times, Is Civility Under Siege?

Good discussion of civility, both its strengths and weaknesses, and how historically calls for greater civility have been used to reinforce the status quo (right to vote for women, civil rights movement).

But more respectful civil discussion and debate, with less name calling, labelling, insults etc, along with social media restraint, is needed more than ever.

And like an earlier posted article on the limits of good faith (The Utility and Futility of Good Faith in Campus Speech Controversies), there are some persons or groups whose positions and attitudes are anything but civil:

It’s a time of deepening political divisions in the United States, with people on opposite ends of the political spectrum not only disagreeing but many really disliking the other side. That dislike has been growing for decades.

In the midst of all that division and dislike, there are growing calls for civility. One poll shows that a majority of Americans say incivility is a major problem. And anNPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll says that the country’s civility crisis is deepening and that a majority of Americans fear it will lead to violence.

But what does civility actually mean? It’s sometimes defined as simply being polite. It comes from the Latin root civilis, meaning “befitting a citizen.” It’s a term that’s a comfort to some and repressive to others. And while, yes, it can refer to politeness, it’s much more than that.

“Civility is the baseline of respect that we owe one another in public life,” says Keith Bybee, the author of How Civility Works. “And when people talk about a crisis in civility, they usually are reporting their sense that there is not a shared understanding of what that baseline of respect ought to be.”

Right now that social contract — a common agreement on what appropriate public behavior looks like and who deserves respect — feels broken. No one can agree on the facts, let alone on how to argue or what to argue about. With a president who uses terms like “loser,” “dumb as a rock” and “fat pig” to describe his critics and “animals” to describe undocumented immigrants, it feels like the tone for nasty behavior that’s seeping into everyday life is being set in Washington.

Some blame the Democrats, others the media — and many blame President Trump.

For some, this deep sense of division and dislike spells out danger. What’s at stake?

“The success of the country,” says Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “When we don’t trust each other, that means it’s very difficult for politicians to compromise. It’s very difficult to find win-win solutions or positive-sum games. And so there are so many problems that we could solve,” but we don’t.

“We become credulous, we become easily manipulated by our foreign enemies and our democracy becomes what? A beacon to the world as to what not to do,” he says.

The arrival of social media didn’t help, Haidt says. He sees it as an accelerant to spew outrage and anger faster and further into the world. It’s a tool that has empowered the powerless to topple dictators, but it’s also one that is used to manipulate, deceive and, well, be horrible to people online anonymously.

But the United States has survived even more divided times in the past — from the country’s founding to the Civil War, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.

Not only did the country endure, but sometimes the outcome of all the so-called incivility was a rewriting of that social contract to make it more inclusive of people who were discounted and dismissed in the past.

At the time, those sit-ins were dismissed, he says, as an “affront to racial etiquette.” In the late 1800s and early 1900s, women seeking the right to vote were uncivil. Rosa Parks? Uncivil. AIDS activists with ACT UP protesting in dramatic and disruptive ways? Uncivil. Black Lives Matter? Uncivil.

“Civility has been about making sure that the status quo, the hierarchy of the status quo at the moment, which means racial inequality, gender inequality, class inequality, stays permanent,” says Lynn Itagaki, an associate professor at the University of Missouri who writes on what she calls civil racism. She defines it as maintaining civility at the expense of racial equality.

It’s a fraught term, she says. It carries the echoes of that historical and bigoted definition of the civilized versus the savage.

Maybe this moment feels like a crisis, Itagaki says, but when people call for a restoration of civility, who gets to define it? Who gets to rewrite the social contract?

Right now hate crimes and hate groups are on the rise. The Southern Poverty Law Center blames the president for stirring fears about a country that is becoming less white and for sparking an immigration debate with racial overtones.

The calls for civility can feel like an effort to stifle people’s outrage over injustice or hate, because civility can be a tool to build or a weapon to silence.

“To what purpose is civility going to be used? Is it going to be more inclusive?” Itagaki asks. “Is it going to mean that you’re bringing more people’s voices into the political debates, or are you using civility as a way to go back to the old hierarchies and the status quo since the founding of the American republic, where you only had white male propertied free landowners who were able to vote?”

So for some, now is a time to take a step back and be civil to each other. For others, it’s imperative to be uncivil in a way that has led to social justice in the past.

Source: In These Divided Times, Is Civility Under Siege?

Making society civil again

Good reflection on the need for civility. At the individual level, we all need to reflect on how we engage with others, in particular how we express our disagreements:

The United States media has been awash with debates about civility in recent months after a number of officials in Donald Trump’s administration have been heckled and shamed in public places.

Commentators have claimed the cause of incivility stems from everything from political orientation to Donald Trump’s leadership and the way we communicate on social media. The recent White House wavering on flag-lowering protocol following the death of Sen. John McCain has only reinforced the ubiquity of this issue, as did high-profile speakers calling for a return to civility at his funeral.

But eroding civility is not just a modern American affliction; Canada, the U.K. and others are not immune.

Respect and civility ultimately reflect our social competency. Their decline can be attributed to a number of factors in our modern world: Abrupt encounters between different beliefs (e.g., through immigration and refugee “crises”), the disbelief and denial that social inequalities still persist, social media algorithms that only expose us to beliefs that are similar to our own and the rise of both real and artificial online trolls.

The microcosm: Incivility in groups

Whether intentional or instinctual, human and non-human animals alike act in a way that ensures equitable exchanges within their group.

We seek balance. If we are treated in a respectful manner, we want to return the favour. If we feel slighted, we typically want reprisal. This is the catalyst for the spiral of incivility.

Incivility has become a persistent concern in workplaces around the world (e.g., U.S. and Japan). It reflects more general tendencies driven by features of individual psychology in group settings.

At work or at home, if we are treated in a respectful manner, we want to return the favour. If we feel slighted, we want reprisal. (Shutterstock)
Whether at work, at a restaurant, or at home, our expectations will ultimately depend on the kind of relationship we believe we share with those around us: Communal sharing in a family, equality with a co-worker, deference to a boss or even proportional cost and benefit in a market economy.

All of these expectations reflect possible models of fair interpersonal exchange that we might reference. Crucially, violating their norms can make us feel justified in engaging in verbal and nonverbal aggression.

Rather than being unethical or disrespectful, others simply might not share the same beliefs about what is appropriate in a given context: For example, as children grow older, the expectation of deference to a parent can turn into an expectation of equality — one that is not yet shared by the parent.

Civility requires that we make a concerted effort to understand each other. Despite our confidence in knowing the intentions of others, our accuracy can be quite low.

Depersonalizing ourselves, others online

All we truly know of each other are sundry fragments that are hastily gathered in a moment. Social judgments are made fast and furiously. Yet, understanding others is a multi-faceted competency that requires time to develop.

In an online setting, where many social cues are modest or absent, we are left with the written word. Without nonverbal cues discerning their meaning can be a daunting task. Online posts have become the Rorschach tests of our time. They are as ambiguous and equally inaccurate in predicting behaviour.

Making matters worse, when we feel like we are one of the crowd, we tend to misbehave. Anonymity, a lack of time, and stress can reduce helpful behaviour and increase antisocial behaviour.

In online spaces, we feel disinhibited. Online communities and dating sites are replete with uncivil behaviour. Rather than living in a community with repercussions, we practice avoidance. Rather than constructively confronting perceived inaccuracies we find in ourselves, we might run further away from one another and toward the fringes.

In the short run, we might preserve a fragile sense of self as a good and competent individual. In the long run, this isolation only reinforces perceived differences and places us in a bubble.

Losing contact with our leaders

Power can alter our behaviour. It can change what people want and how they attain their goals.

Leaders believe that they must symbolically represent the group and its values. If those with power feel it’s their duty to adhere to the values of the group, they will. If certain values are deemed irrelevant, they will be ignored: A leader might focus on a group’s finances and neglect its ethics.

Over the long term, leaders can trap themselves if these values are not realistically attainable over the course of their tenure. This moral hypocrisy places them in a precarious position. The higher the pedestal, the greater the fall. And people will push.

Wanting a world without ambiguity, followers often resort to rationalizing inconsistencies and can dismiss the proposals from those of other groups , something that can translate into real-world consequences.

Choosing the course of history

History is a willing tutor if we’re prepared to listen with a critical ear. When we come together to fight a common enemy, we can push back empires. When we lose common ground, our societies shatter.

A reading of the history of North America reflects an uneasy plurality. Whether historically or presently, evidence suggests that tensions can be reduced when faced with common threats. Leaders can and do manipulate this to increase cohesion within the majority. However, there is a price to pay.

In the Second World War, Japanese-Canadians paid the price. Now, an increase in hate crimes might suggest Canadian Muslims are footing the bill. The U.K. and the U.S. have their own variants.

Unless we want to become another failed stratum in the sediment of history like Rome, we must choose our responses wisely. When our barbarians are at the gates, will we be prepared?

The greatest threats are not as simple as identifiable countries or peoples. Instead, our common adversaries are largely self-made. Antibiotic-resistant diseases, climate change, workforces ill-equipped for seismic technological shifts and overly simplified rhetoric imperil us.

The endemic rashness of political discourse can no longer be tolerated.

Civility has a role to play here as we challenge ourselves and others. We must be humble with the limits of our knowledge. In an age when fact and opinion have become blurred for many, we must approach absolute statements with caution. This requires deliberation and respectful exchange. The more reasoned the arguments we take into consideration, the better off we will be.

Equally important, civility does not imply that all opinions have equal merit. Instead, we must invest time and effort in our response and avoid being stuck between reactive gut feelings and indifference. We must reflect on how we will be judged and remembered when the dust of history settles upon us.

In an irrevocably globalized world, civility is likely more important now than it has ever been.

Source: Make society civil again

Andrew Coyne: Trump doesn’t deserve civility, but it’s the best weapon against him

Good arguments by Coyne on resisting descending to the gutter, even if hard to do so:

All in all it’s been a fine season for the tu quoque.

As America’s nervous breakdown continues apace, there has been a sudden outbreak of concern for the decline in civility, particularly among supporters of President Civility, Donald Trump.

The signs, it seems, are everywhere: the Homeland Security secretary was hounded out of a restaurant by protesters. The White House press secretary was asked to leave by management at another. Here in Canada, things have gotten so out of hand that several Ottawa dignitaries declined to attend this year’s 4th of July party at the US ambassador’s.

All of which has been fodder for yet more vituperation on social media, where incivility has been the norm since day one. Critics, particularly on the left, have scoffed at the suggestion there is anything particularly new or over the line about the insults lately offered members of the Trump administration, not least given the constant stream of insults spewing from the gold-plated spigot in the Oval Office.

Surely, they ask, the people first to decry the chilling effects of political correctness on free speech have not suddenly themselves turned into snowflakes? To which the right replies: wait, so now the left is in favour of free speech? You mean now it’s OK for a business to refuse service to someone on the basis of certain deeply held beliefs? To which the response from the left, inevitably, is: you mean you’re no longer defending their right to do so?

And everyone has had a perfectly marvellous time calling each other out for their hypocrisy. These days, that’s the only sin anyone bothers with, since it requires no judgments, but only comparisons.

It does seem a bit late in the day to be fretting about the absence of civility in American public life. Nor would rudeness, as such, rank among the more pressing of the Great Republic’s problems at the moment. Whatever discomfort the Homeland Security secretary might have endured on her night out, her critics are surely right to say it is nothing compared to the suffering the administration she serves has imposed on, oh, immigrant children, for example.

So no, I’m not particularly moved by sympathy for Trump officials. Nor am I of a mind to scold the protesters for their bad manners. I would only ask: what purpose are they trying to achieve? Because if the intent is actually to persuade anyone who is not already opposed to the president and his policies, this is the very worst way to go about it.

The argument for civility in debate is an old one, and not much heard these days. In the online world it tends to be regarded as an affectation, a luxury only the privileged can afford.

But the case for civility is not grounded in a concern for mere decorum. It’s really one of self-interest. Treating opponents civilly — listening to their arguments, rather than shouting them down; presenting them fairly, without caricature; addressing them squarely, without ad hominems — isn’t just good manners. It’s smart strategy.

Yes, much harm is done to the general climate of debate when it descends into shouting and name-calling. But the worst harm done by such behaviour, in my observation, is to the cause of those engaging in it.

Because if you want people who do not already share your views to listen to you — not your opponents, necessarily, but the broad mass of people who are typically somewhere in between — if that matters to you, they won’t do so if you’re shouting. And the louder you shout, the less they’ll hear you.

This isn’t just a matter of sticking to facts and arguments; as important as that is, it’s frankly secondary in the real world of how opinions are formed. Rather, people often judge matters of controversy in the light of their impressions of the combatants.

We are hard-wired to be more persuaded by people who themselves seem open to persuasion: who are led by facts rather than preconceptions; who have understood the opposing view and can rebut it, not in caricature, but on its most reasonable possible construction; and, perhaps most importantly, who treat us as if we were reasonable people ourselves — who talk to us as adults, rather than shouting or talking down to us.

The “rules” of debate, that is, are there for the disputants’ own good. When people don’t follow the rules, we tend to conclude, not that their position is so obviously superior as to absolve them of such petty constraints, but rather that they have something to hide — either that they haven’t fully understood their opponents’ arguments, or worse, that they have, and cannot answer them.

But, you’re saying, what has this got to do with Trump? This might be good advice in normal times, against a normal opponent, but these are not those, and he is not that. Aren’t I just “normalizing” Trump?

There is a danger of that, admittedly. Anybody in the persuasion game soon learns of the danger of being equally outraged by everything. You have to keep a “high C” in reserve that you can go to when things get truly outrageous.

The difficulty Trump presents is that he says and does about six things a day that would normally call for the coloratura treatment. Do so, and you risk people tuning out. But fail to do so, and you are effectively giving him a volume discount.

But you don’t escape this dilemma by ignoring it. The thing that would truly “normalize” Trump is if everyone got down in the gutter with him. The one true weapon that decent people have against him is decency, and the power of the opposite example.

It is the path not just of reason, but I dare say cunning.

Source: Andrew Coyne: Trump doesn’t deserve civility, but it’s the best weapon against him

Fighting fire with fire: Rudeness can be as contagious as a common cold, research shows

While I fully understand the impulse for replying or acting in kind to the Trump administration and their enablers, this only further coarsens societal norms.

The sound advice below is hard to implement but it starts with greater self-awareness:

“When you experience incivility, it’s important to take a step back and not act on your impulses. Do things that help you recover your ability to self-regulate, like exercise or taking a break,” he said.

At the same time, he acknowledged, “Our research shows people are often not even aware of their reactions and the way they spread negativity. So some of these recommendations for how to stop it are easier said than done.”

So try to develop a reflex of asking whether a proposed remark or tweet is likely to coarsen or improve tone and substance:

These are rude times we live in.

And many people find themselves struggling with how to respond. Do they fight fire with fire or try somehow to take the moral high ground?

Scientific research has surprisingly quite a lot to say about it all.

Trevor Foulk, who researches organizational behaviour at the University of Maryland, likens rudeness to the common cold: It’s contagious.

“When it comes to incivility, there’s often a snowballing effect. The more you see rudeness, the more likely you are to perceive it from others and the more likely you are to be rude yourself to others,” he said.

The debate over civility kicked into high gear after a Virginia restaurant asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave because employees didn’t want to serve her. That followed the outright heckling of Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen as she ate at a D.C. Mexican restaurant. Some people, like Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif, have called for more such confrontations with Trump officials. Others warn of a race to the bottom and plea for an end to the boorishness.

Trump opted for insulting the restaurant, Waters and others.

Trump tweeted “The Red Hen Restaurant should focus more on cleaning its filthy canopies, doors and windows (badly needs a paint job) rather than refusing to serve a fine person like Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I always had a rule, if a restaurant is dirty on the outside, it is dirty on the inside!”

Such cycles — now repeated on a weekly or even daily basis and spreading quickly online — are driven in part by our unconscious reactions, experts say.

In a 2016 study, Christopher Rosen, an organizational scientist at the University of Arkansas, tracked employees over the course of their work days. He and fellow researchers found that individuals who experienced a perceived insult earlier in the day would later strike back at co-workers. Using psychological tests, the researchers linked that reaction to lowered levels of self-control.

“When someone is uncivil to you, it forces you to spend a lot of mental energy trying to figure out what’s going on, what caused the rudeness, what it means,” Rosen said in an interview Monday. “All that thinking lessens your capacity for impulse control. So you become more prone to be rude to others… People in a way ‘pay it forward.’”

In recent years, rising concerns over incivility — insults, condescension, dismissiveness and the like — have led to increasing research on the topic by social scientists and psychologists.

In a series of experiments, for example, Foulk and others showed that the more that people witness and experience rudeness, the more they are predisposed to interpret an action as rude and then act toward others in rude ways.

“Rudeness is interesting in that it’s often ambiguous and open to interpretation,” he said. “If someone punches you, for example, we would all agree that it’s abusive. But if someone comes up to you and says in a neutral voice ‘nice shoes,’ is that an insult? Is it sarcasm or something else?” The more someone has witnessed rudeness, “the more likely you are to interpret ‘nice shoes’ as deliberately rude.”

In one study, workers were shown videos every morning before work. On the mornings when those videos included an uncivil interaction, the workers were more likely to interpret subsequent interactions throughout their day as rude.

In another study on negotiations, Foulk found that if someone experiences rudeness from a person on the opposing side, the next person they negotiate with is highly likely to perceive them as rude, too. Even when the two negotiations took place seven days apart, the contagion effect was just as strong.

“What is so scary about this effect is that it’s an automatic process — it takes place in a part of your brain that you are not aware of, can’t stop, and can’t control,” Foulk wrote in a summary of his findings.

Other studies also suggest incivility by top brass — whether immediate supervisors or CEOs — has an outsized influence on the uncivil behaviour of those below them.

But perhaps most worrisome is the effect of all this growing incivility. Mounting research shows rudeness can cause employees to be chronically distracted, less productive and less creative. Researchers have shown how incivility can lower trust, spark feelings of anger, fear and sadness, and cause depression. One study found increased incivility at work had personal life implications, such as less marital satisfaction.

And two studies in 2015 and 2017 found that doctors and nurses in neonatal intensive care units who were scolded by an actress playing the mother of a sick infant performed much more poorly than those who did not — even misdiagnosing the infant’s condition.

“The results were scary,” one of the authors told the Wall Street Journal. “The teams exposed to rudeness gave the wrong diagnosis, didn’t resuscitate or ventilate appropriately, didn’t communicate well, gave the wrong medications and made other serious mistakes.”

Researchers have struggled in vain to come up with ways to stop the spreading effects of rudeness. Those who studied the hospital neonatal staffs, for example, tried having the doctors and nurses write about their interaction from the perspective of the rude mother. Doing so made no difference.

Rosen has a simpler suggestion. “When you experience incivility, it’s important to take a step back and not act on your impulses. Do things that help you recover your ability to self-regulate, like exercise or taking a break,” he said.

At the same time, he acknowledged, “Our research shows people are often not even aware of their reactions and the way they spread negativity. So some of these recommendations for how to stop it are easier said than done.”

Source: Fighting fire with fire: Rudeness can be as contagious as a common cold, research shows

The Culture of Nastiness – The New York Times

Good reflections and commentary by Teddy Wayne:

Social media has normalized casual cruelty, and those who remove the “casual” from that descriptor are simply taking it several repellent steps further than the rest of us. That internet trolls typically behave better in the real world is not, however, solely from fear of public shaming and repercussions, or even that their fundamental humanity is activated in empathetic, face-to-face conversations. It may be that they lack much of a “real world” — a strong sense of community — to begin with, and now have trouble relating to others.

Andrew Reiner, an English professor at Towson University who teaches a seminar called “Mister Rogers 101: Why Civility and Community Still Matter,” attributes much of the decline in civility, especially among younger people, to Americans’ living in relative sequestration. The majority of his students tell him they barely knew their neighbors growing up, corroborating thinkers like Robert Putnam, who in his 2000 book, “Bowling Alone,” argued that civic engagement is diminishing. Consequently, Professor Reiner believes they have little experience in working through conflicts with people with whom they must figure out a way to get along.

“Civility is the idea that you’re not always going to agree but you still have to make it work,” he said. “We fear our ideas clashing with somebody else’s, even when we’re all ultimately pulling for the same thing.”

This leads to a vicious cycle in which the breakdowns of civility and community reinforce one another.

“People think, ‘If I disagree with you, then I have to dislike you, so why should I go to a neighborhood meeting when it’s clear I’m going to disagree with them?’” he said.

Professor Reiner also chalked up some of the devolution of basic courtesy to people’s increasingly digitized existence and engagement with their phones, not one another. For an assignment, he asks his students to experiment with old-fashioned civility by committing random acts of kindness and eating with strangers.

“It’s about trying to get beyond our own insecurities and get past the possibility of rejection, and that never has to happen with our online lives,” he said. “It reintroduces the idea of social risk-taking, which not that long ago was the norm, and learning how to be uncomfortable and relearning the skills of how to talk face to face.”

Though the internet receives the brunt of censure for corroding manners, other elements of popular culture aren’t much more elevated. In my neighborhood subway station a few months ago, two posters near each other for the TV shows “Graves” (about a former president) and “Those Who Can’t” (a comedy about teachers) both featured lightly obscured depictions of the middle finger. After the election, as I looked at the one depicting Nick Nolte in front of an American flag with the presidential seal covering his offending hand, it no longer seemed so shocking that Mr. Trump would soon occupy the Oval Office.

And the putative employer wielding all the power over labor is a trademark of reality TV, where Mr. Trump honed his brand for 14 seasons on NBC and trained us to think of a blustery television personality like him as a regular and revered figure in contemporary America. We have long had game and talent shows, but elimination from them used to be gentler — or, in the case of “The Gong Show,” at least goofier — than being brusquely told, “You’re fired,” “You are the weakest link” or receiving Simon Cowell’s withering exit-interview critiques.

In the dog-eat-dog environments of these programs, cooperation and kindness are readily abandoned for back-stabbing and character assassination. Short-term strategic alliances sometimes form among rivals, but the rules of the games preclude the possibility of something like collective bargaining. Likewise, union membership has drastically shrunk in the private sector over the last four decades. Why sacrifice for another person when there can be just one top chef or model or singer, one bachelorette with the final rose, one survivor — or in your own workplace, one promotion this financial quarter amid a spate of layoffs?

As evinced by the long-running “Real Housewives” series, calm conflict resolution does not make for good ratings. Even cake baking is now a fight to the finish.

Rather than seeking the comfort of known faces with the fictional, loving families and buddies from “The Brady Bunch,” “Cheers” and “Friends,” we now crave the company of supposedly “real” squabbling family members or acquaintances from documentary-style shows, perhaps as consolation for most likely watching them by ourselves, on a small laptop or phone screen.

“We would rather watch families on reality TV than do the hard work of being in a community with our own families,” Professor Reiner said.

Many critics of Mr. Trump have drawn parallels between this era and 1930s Germany. But when it comes to incivility and the 45th president, a more apt epoch may be 1950s America and its Communist witch hunts, specifically a quotation from the lawyer Joseph N. Welch in the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. (The chief counsel for Senator Joseph McCarthy was Roy Cohn, who later went on to become a close friend and business associate of Mr. Trump’s.)

“Have you no sense of decency, sir?” Mr. Welch asked Mr. McCarthy after Mr. McCarthy alleged that one of Mr. Welch’s fellow lawyers was a Communist.

It is a question many would like to pose to Mr. Trump — and one we all, nasty sirs and women alike, should be asking ourselves.

Who has the right to say what’s correct? Mark Kingwell

Kingwell on political correctness and civility, making the important distinction between politeness and a willingness to engage in meaningful yet respectful discussion and debate:

Civility is much misunderstood. It is not politeness, the stifling of personal opinion in the service of social niceties. Politeness is a minor virtue of communal life. I might reply, when asked my opinion of a dinner, that it was “quite good.” I don’t really believe it and probably my host doesn’t either. Enough said.

Genuine civility, by contrast, marks a willingness to engage the other in the service of understanding, not competition. This is never easy. Will what I say offend someone else? Well, maybe. Is there still good reason for saying it, and saying it this way? What, finally, is the point, here?

Nobody anywhere, on campus or off, has ever had the privilege of saying anything at all without consequences. The next time you think political correctness has “gone too far,” ask yourself if maybe you are the one saying unproductive, small-minded or stupid things. Just as important, we all need to remember that nothing is ever correct until we argue the point – and usually not even then.

Source: Who has the right to say what’s correct? – The Globe and Mail