Guest opinion: Civility is difficult

  • Wednesday, May 22, 2019 1:30am
  • Opinion

What is it that makes civility seem so challenging? Should we always be civil? Are there circumstances when being civil is wrong? Can civility be misused or even abused? How do we reconcile the admonition to be civil with a proper, justifiable sense of moral outrage? Can we, and should we, be civil when we are morally outraged?

Thinking of civility as showing respect to alternate views and neither silencing nor demeaning them might seem a pretty straightforward way of explaining what it means to be civil to each other when discussing political, social, economic or other contentious issues.

But actually, being civil in that context isn’t easy. As coach Jimmy Duggan (played by Tom Hanks in the movie “A League of Their Own”) says of professional baseball, “Of course it’s hard. It’s supposed to be hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Hard is what makes it great.”

Should we always be civil?

Even when we’re good it, putting civility into practice can be hard because it poses some real dilemmas. How can we be civil when dealing with a hate group, for instance? What if the insistence on “civility” is really just a way to silence, demean or subjugate someone or a marginalized group? Is a sense of moral outrage compatible with civility?

Being civil doesn’t mean we agree with any different perspective; understanding the reasoning behind an extreme view doesn’t mean we have to grant validity to the reasoning — it may be illogical, based on bad information, derived from unfair, unjust, unethical ideas; civility is not condoning the views of a hate group.

Nor does civility preclude feeling or expressing moral outrage — it does not mean we view or treat incivility, injustice, crime, abuse of power (in all its forms) or atrocity with polite distance and dispassion. It does not mean we must passively accept or tolerate people who not only disregard the norms of civility, but also actively diminish, demean or de-humanize others.

Being civil in these situations is how we express that sense of moral outrage, how we express our condemnation, how we respond to incivility (or the more egregious wrongs mentioned above). We can maintain the standards of civility even as we strongly censure incivility; we can be civil even as we passionately, vehemently condemn injustice and other appalling wrongs.

Civility is not timidity or intellectual cowardice and cannot be used to excuse or justify either.

The specifics of any given situation, of course, can vary greatly, with important implications for how we respond. The devil may well lie in the details, but the overarching principle of civility should guide us in any case. It’s not easy.

Where, then, should we start?

Restoring civility to our political discourse — to how we engage with each other as citizens wrestling with difficult, complex, contentious issues — can begin by recognizing that we all need to develop the skills required to have effective, productive, respectful conversations about such issues.

The need to practice

Being civil is based on a set of skills that don’t come naturally to us as humans … skills that require practice and, if they are to be used effectively, demand a commitment to continuous improvement. Close, careful, engaged listening (or reading or watching) is one such skill. Understanding the reasons — the thinking — behind an alternative view on a complex issue is another.

The ability to evaluate our own thinking as well as that of others is a third core skill.

If any of these were easy — if civility was really nothing more than being polite — hyper-partisanship, toxic tribalism, cultural warfare wouldn’t be the dominant features of our political and social landscape. But civility rests on the ability to think critically and that is something we have to develop — we’re not born with it.

Even when we know and fully appreciate the importance of the skills essential to being civil and engaging in civil discourse with each other, the opportunities to practice and improve them are few and far between. These days we tend to be more insular — we associate more with a closer, more tightly knit circle of friends and acquaintances with similar experiences and views.

Social media has displaced or replaced in-person, face-to-face communication as the way we acquire, assess and comment on information and ideas. Divisiveness, distrust, anger and cynicism drive us further apart and make us less inclined to even try to engage with a wider or more diverse group.

We’ve created (and live in) echo chambers that are state-of-the-art comfort zones where neither sound reasoning nor civility are relevant because alternative views aren’t allowed to begin with.

These are significant obstacles to overcome. But each of us has the power to do that — if we want to. We can choose to be less insular, to broaden our exposure to those with different backgrounds, experiences, political views.

We can choose to engage in person rather than via social media. We can choose to be less divisive and distrustful. We can choose to curb our anger and cynicism. We can choose to leave our echo chambers and make a conscious effort to practice the foundational skills of civility.

This is a tall order; it’s hard. But “hard is what makes it great.”

If you want to learn, re-learn, practice and improve your skills at being civil, please let me know. The conversational group I mentioned in last month’s column, “The Civility Roundtable,” will be starting soon.

To join the Civility Roundtable conversations, contact Ken Stringer at

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