Civility and the Recent Nigerian Election

As in all things, it is good to have some perspective when it comes to issues of civility. So often, here in the United States, we conflate civility with etiquette and good manners. There’s something to that. As when Christa Dowling, blogging at The Huffington Post, writes that we should be concerned that common courtesy is on the wane. Coarse language, she writes, has become part of the public discourse, technology like smartphones demand more and more attention, and the result is a breakdown of the kind of communicative discourse, which helps to build and grow strong personal and business relationships.

This is important. One could argue, as Dowling does, that civil society is predicated on having a common sense of etiquette and manners – that those things allow us to make our needs known without giving offense, and to listen to the needs of others without being offended ourselves. And one would not be wrong.

But when we narrow our view of civility just to the question of manners, or even when we narrow it to the question of public policy debates (as we often do on this blog), we miss a larger implication of the term. As The Nigerian Tribune pointed out in April, civility is about doing those things that are necessary for the good of the whole, even when they are personally unpleasant – even when they involve ceding power.

Writing about the recent Nigerian elections, the Tribune, on April 3, reported that the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) has described the acceptance of defeat by President Goodluck Jonathan in the last presidential election as a demonstration of political civility and statesmanship.

Consider that: acceptance of defeat in a political election – the willingness to step aside – as a face of civility.

Nigeria
Nigeria

The MOSOP, a group which represents the indigenous Ogoni people of southern Nigeria, also commended Nigerians for the peaceful national polls, which it said were imperfect but successful. And it called on the nation’s elections commission to entrench transparency in its organisation and management of elections.

All of these things are aspects of civility in a way that is surprisingly similar to what Christa Dowling says about manners. Like manners and etiquette, engagement in peaceful elections and the willingness to cede power comprise the basic machinery necessary to live in a community that allows everybody to get a little bit of what they want.

Like ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ voting is a way of communicating your needs in a manner that is peaceful and respectful to others. And abiding by the results of elections, similarly, is a way of communicating that you have heard and acknowledge what others have had to say.

But unlike ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ the stakes are that much higher. The feeling of being offended or unacknowledged because of bad manners can lead to violence. But all told, those cases are isolated and rare. On the other hand, invalid elections and the refusal of incumbents to leave office is a recipe for violence. It communicates a disrespect for the cumulative will of community-members and a disdain for the machinery that allows for productive civil discourse at all.

We could think of this as the sort of thing that’s an issue in Nigeria, but not the United States. But if we did, we would be wrong. In his 1796 farewell address, as part of his condemnation of political parties, George Washington discusses just this sort of thing. He says:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Because of parties or whatever else, says Washington, we tend as a society toward an erosion of the underlying institutions – voting, terms of office, etc. – that make democratic rule work. And we must be ever vigilant to maintain them, to maintain this face of civility, in order to keep formal and permanent despotism at bay.

Manners are important, in other words, but they are just one face of the larger notion of civility of which we must be more aware.

Civility Linkblogging: Accountability, Gemeinschaftsgefuehl, and Bush 41

Linkblogging
By Anita Pratanti, via flickr

This post is part of our ongoing effort to highlight discourse about civility around the web. Our articles for civility linkblogging come from a wide cross-section of blogs and newspapers, magazines and other websites, from the United States and abroad.

This week’s post features a story about the civic consequences of uncivil words. After Frazier Glenn Cross shot and killed three people outside of two Jewish community institutions in Overland Park, KS, Marionville, Mo. mayor Dan Clevenger spoke out in the killer’s defense. And in the process, he made his own anti-Semitic views clear. But the Marionville town aldermen would have none of that. And standing up for a culture of civility and respect, they forced Clevenger to resign.

If you have an article that you think would be right for future civility linkblogging posts, please do not hesitate to email it to us at editor@instituteforcivility.org. Include the title, url, and a short summary, and we will gladly review it for publication.

Now — the list:

Electile Dysfunction: Campaigns need Civility
Posted by David Steury at The Bowdoin Orient on April 17, 2014

I don’t want to argue for civility as a virtue. Obviously, the defining feature of these ads is vitriolic and often rude rhetoric, but a lack of civility is a symptom, not a problem in and of itself. It’s a symptom that feeds back into and perpetuates the original problem of polarization, but politeness is not inherently a virtue in politics, a realm where remaining silent can result in disastrous consequences.

While ads such as Rosendale’s and Winteregg’s may just be pure political calculation to win votes, they legitimize an environment in which lawmakers can hate each other, engage in ad hominem attacks, and imply violent action against things with which they disagree.

Civility and community: Lovin’ Lyndhurst
Posted by Maria Shine Stewart at Cleveland.com, April 18, 2014

Alfred Adler, psychologist, used the term Gemeinschaftsgefuehl, and that means, roughly, a form of “social interest” that marks both community health and personal well being. It’s perhaps a precursor of civility, and accompanies it. I was blessed with a compassionate and German-speaking mom, probably the greatest blessing of my life, so I learned that no matter how much or how little one has materially, it is possible to give and to share something. (I also learned to pronounce some fairly tricky words.)

Acts of kindness teach our muscles to be kind; we can thus really grasp what it feels like to help. And conversely, if we ever muster the art of humility at any age, we also learn what it feels like to receive help without pushing it away. That, too, is an art.

Mayor of Marionville, Mo., Trips Over Vile Speech
Posted at the Kansas City Star, April 22, 2014

After the horrific killings on April 13, [Marionville Mayor, Dan] Clevenger had the impolitic impulse to utter a few words about his view of Jewish people in business and government. That put him in line with his anti-Semitic, white Supremacist, charged-with-murder buddy…

Clevenger, of course, has his free speech privilege to say whatever foul thing comes into his head (with widely recognized limits regarding defamation and inciting violence). No one is denying him that right. But as a public official, Clevenger has now learned that speech has its consequences. On Monday night his community stepped up on the side of civility and forced Clevenger to resign.

Bush 41 Still Displays Civility, Graciousness Along With Courage
Posted by Carl P. Leubsdorf at The Columbus Dispatch, April 25, 2014

Two weeks ago, he turned up at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport to greet President Barack Obama during his Texas visit. “When the president comes to your hometown, you show up to meet him,” explained Bush, looking good and displaying a firm handshake.

His visit also sent a signal that, though he and Obama are quite different politically and ideologically, the presidency deserves the respect that many of today’s partisans pointedly ignore.

Even During a Protest, Civility Is Necessary
Posted by Sanjay Perera at Today Online, May 2, 2014

It was disconcerting to read of a way of protest developing in Singapore that has come close to burning effigies of a minister and defacing a poster of the Prime Minister.

People should vent their angst in a proper manner.

Even civil disobedience, which is far from violating images of people, has the word ‘civil’ in it.

A caricature of someone is one thing; there is always an element of humour. However, to encourage possible thoughts of violence is another.

Have people forgotten that a troubled person set alight a Member of Parliament some years ago?