Guest opinion: Of civility and citizenship

  • Wednesday, April 17, 2019 1:30am
  • Opinion

What is the relationship between civility and citizenship? When we talk about being a “good” citizen, what do we mean? How does incivility weaken citizenship? Can we preserve, let alone strengthen, citizenship in an age of extreme polarization and growing division? What are the consequences if we don’t?

Civility has been defined in various ways, but most modern definitions share the following core: discourse that shows respect for alternative views and neither silences them nor treats them as inferior. Showing respect for alternative views involves close, careful, engaged listening (reading, watching) in order to understand all aspects of them — their origins, the underlying ideas and concepts, the experiences and information that shape them and support them.

Refusing to listen (or declining to read or watch anything that doesn’t agree with or support your own point of view), dismissing a different perspective out of hand, or attacking it, are ways in which such views are silenced or demeaned; this is incivility.

Citizenship, in the present context, is not solely one’s legal status or nationality, nor is it merely being civil. It is the role and responsibility of being a citizen — of being a member of a community; and while that can take many forms or play out in many ways, it usually connotes at least some degree of civic engagement.

At the very least it is being aware of, and informed about, issues that have a political impact on one’s community — including our system of government and how it works. The degree of civic engagement alone, however, is not necessarily a sound or accurate measure of the quality of one’s citizenship.

To be a good citizen in a constitutional democracy such as ours requires a commitment to civility — to civil discourse. Civility, in other words, is essential to citizenship. Good citizenship is civil citizenship; it is showing respect for alternative views in the context and conduct of political discussion and neither silencing them nor treating them as inferior.

The commitment to civility in political discussion is what makes civil discourse possible. As with any discussion, the whole point is to share experiences and information, judgments and their implications. We engage in political discussion to decide what to do regarding our community (whether at the local, state or national level), how to accomplish the goals we set out, what challenges we face and what opportunities we may encounter.

We weigh alternatives, we take into account different views on an issue; we seek to reconcile points of disagreement or contention and, if reconciliation proves beyond us, at least fully to address the nature of the disagreement.

Absent that commitment, the discussion itself suffers, in many cases, irrevocably as the standards of civil discourse give way to incivility — where respect is not accorded different perspectives, when they are disregarded or held to be unworthy. Incivility undermines our ability to consider issues — particularly complex, difficult, contentious ones — calmly and reasonably.

Numerous studies show that incivility reduces cognitive processing, productivity and creativity, the very qualities most crucial to dealing with tough, complicated issues where views on how to deal with them can differ sharply. Incivility generates more incivility because it elicits a reciprocal aggression. Incivility is like an acid corroding good citizenship.

By this measure, in our political discourse today — in how we talk with and treat each other as citizens in the United States in the early 21st century — good citizenship seems to be a quality rarely in evidence.

Instead, political discussion at any level more often displays incivility of one degree or another, sometimes of such stunning toxicity that it suggests incivility is the attribute that is now cherished, fostered, mastered.

Restoring good citizenship

A sense of despair at the seemingly pervasive incivility characterizing today’s political discourse is understandable. But the restoration of civility and good citizenship in the political arena is not only possible, it’s a necessity if we are to reverse our descent into political chaos.

Several groups are actively engaged in that restoration. Better Angels, for instance, is a national citizens’ movement “to reduce political polarization in the United States by bringing liberals and conservatives together to understand each other beyond stereotypes, forming red/blue community alliances, teaching practical skills for communicating across political differences, and making a strong public argument for depolarization.”

A Better Angels chapter exists in Seattle and individuals locally are seeking to bring the benefits of the organization’s approach to our area.

Similarly, other local groups such as the Compassion Campaign of Clallam County, the Interfaith Community in Clallam County and “We the People,” all share a commitment to civility as the essential element of collaboration and cooperation in tackling tough problems, resolving conflict and fostering a more open, connected, welcoming community.

To this end, CommunityPlus soon will launch a series of conversations focused on civility and citizenship.

The goal is to explore how best to engage in civil discourse on issues that confront each of us individually as citizens and as members of the community.

Each conversation will examine a specific topic in depth, using critical thinking skills to examine it and to understand the different ways in which the issue is seen as well as the implications and consequences for how we relate to each other as citizens.

The challenge of restoring good citizenship — of reviving civility in our political discourse, is a daunting one. It requires each of us to make the commitment, to devote considerable time, energy, thought and effort necessary. It is up to us to learn, re-learn or improve our skills as good citizens.

We must model the qualities of good citizenship, value them more, teach them wherever, however, we can.

To join the conversations, contact Ken Stringer at communityplus.sequim@gmail.com.

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