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Chapter 7: Civility in America: What’s wrong & how to fix it

May 17, 2012

“Civilization will not last, freedom will not survive, peace will not be kept, unless a very large majority of mankind unite together to defend them and show themselves possessed of a constabulary power before which barbaric and atavistic forces will.” —British statesman Winston Churchill


“As citizens we have to be more thoughtful and more educated and more informed. I turn on the TV and I see these grown people screaming at each other, and I think, well, if we don’t get our civility back, we’re in trouble.”—American singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris

What’s wrong with civility in America

  • Ugly public discourse. The sad truth is that most American political discourse has never been very civil. Right from the beginning, people have used name-calling and distortion against those with whom they disagreed. But that doesn’t make it right.
  • Driving away decent people. Many uncivil extremists are so vile and hateful that they drive decent people into silence. This is the dark side of our freedom of speech.

How to restore American civility

  • Individual restraint. We can and should do better, and we can do this unilaterally—one citizen at a time. No harm will come of it if we elevate the quality of our public discussions. All that is required is a bit of humility (“I might be wrong”), a respect for the opinions of others (“You have as much right to your opinion as I have to mine”), and a commitment to continuous learning (“I can learn from others if I actually listen and think”).
  • No personal attacks. You can vigorously disagree with somebody else’s opinion without attacking the individual personally. It’s a matter of sticking to the issue at hand. You’ll know you’ve gone too far when you engage in name-calling or profanity.
  • Practice the “third alternative.” Author Stephen Covey’s The 3rd Alternative offers a brilliantly simple idea: If your idea is the first alternative and my idea is the second alternative, we can argue all day. But if we actually listen to one another and work at it, the third alternative we develop together may be far superior to your idea and mine.
  • Be willing to walk away. You can quietly disengage from people who distort facts or resort to name-calling or profanity. Why waste your time with anyone who is unwilling to discuss issues in a respectful and thoughtful manner?
  • Not a role for government. In a free country, civility must remain an individual choice. Citizens can reason with one another. They can choose to reject the opinions of fellow citizens who are uncivil. But the government should not get involved in defining civility or enforcing it.

“Civility costs nothing, and buys everything.” —English aristocrat and writer Mary Wortley Montagu


“Aspire to decency. Practice civility toward one another. Admire and emulate ethical behavior wherever you find it. Apply a rigid standard of morality to your lives; and if, periodically, you fail—as you surely will—adjust your lives, not the standards.” —English-born American broadcast journalist Ted Koppel

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