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: Marriage Equality, Street Harassment, and Anger Management

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.

Notable among this week’s articles is one eloquent call for civility in debates over marriage equality, and a creative response by three Philadelphia women to the problem of harassment on the street and elsewhere. In the former, Indianapolis Star columnist Erika Smith reminds us that that not everyone who opposes same-sex marriage is a religious zealot. And not everyone who supports same-sex marriage is a rainbow-clad heathen. While in the latter, Rochelle Keyhan, Erin Filson, and Anna Kegler explain the impetus and impact of their groups, Hollaback Philly and Geeks for CONsent.

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:

Being Agreeable Is an Essential Trait
Posted by Orlaine I. Gabert at Greenbaypressgazette.com, August 12, 2014

Probably there are a good number of issues, concerns, likes, activities that are passionate for the person speaking, but are of little importance to you. In those instances you can listen attentively and thank the person for sharing.

Other times you are affected or passionate about the subject. After you have listened, you share your views respectfully without demeaning the person or their ideas. It may be possible to find some consensus, or you can both respect that each of you have a different view.

Why So Mad? Civility Experts Weigh In
Posted by Jennifer Brett at AccessAtlanta.com, August 15, 2014

“So much of our interaction takes place digitally now. When people don’t handle conflict well, they will often hide behind email. It’s so much easier to say mean things when you’re no longer looking someone in the eye.”

Eye-to-eye can be a more effective forum for reaching compromise than screen-to-screen, she said.

“Try to see the situation through the eyes of the other person,” she advised. “Realize they’re being mean and angry because they’re trying to protect something. There’s a reason they’re being so emotional. Have empathy that the person feels threatened.”

Flunking the Rules of Civility
Posted by Katie Coombs at the Reno Gazette-Journal, August 20, 2014

In the past 20 years, the emphasis in the schools, and now at home, has been on self-esteem and self-worth, and the value of learning to focus on others has slipped away. Teachers and parents alike are tip-toeing around kids and their unruly behaviors so that they don’t feel shamed by manners and discipline. Is it working? If we look around, we see spoiled disrespectful brats in most restaurants, schools and on athletic teams. These kids wouldn’t lift a finger to help their parents without arguing about it first or proclaiming how unfair it is to have to help support the daily grind of operating a house. Parents are exhausted and overwhelmed by these children and know they have created monsters, but don’t know what to do. If that is your household, then I would suggest establishing the rules of civility in your home.

Let’s Practice Civility in Debate over Same-Sex Marriage
Posted by Erika D. Smith at IndyStar.com, August 26, 2014

I’m asking you to remember that not everyone who opposes same-sex marriage is a religious zealot. And not everyone who supports same-sex marriage is a rainbow-clad heathen.

There are people in the middle. In fact, a lot of people are in the middle on this issue. People who don’t know what to think. The problem is we can’t hear them over the roar of rhetoric.

So I’m asking for civility — maybe even open-mindedness.

Three Philly Women Seek Civility on the Street and Equality in the World of Geekdom
Posted by Howard Gensler at Philly.com, August 28, 2014

On the street, the women say, one never knows when a simple catcall might lead to violence, or when relentless harassment could turn what might have been meant as an innocent remark into the final straw of aggravation.

For many women, walking around in public can be a nonstop series of lip smacks, ass pinches, vile come-ons and more.

“For some guys it’s just a catcall,” Keyhan said. “But they don’t realize that the catcall is just a prelude to all the other awful things that can happen in a public space. . . . If all it was was just, ‘Hey sexy, hey baby,’ I would not spend all my free time on this. But when you never know what’s going to come next, that’s the problem.”

Civility Linkblogging: Classroom, Internet, and Transit

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 focuses on what we might call small civilities — etiquette on trains and in parking lots, civility in online gaming communities and student evaluations. But as these articles all make clear, small civilities add up. Teaching evaluations in college classrooms may mean a venue to vent for disappointed students, but for instructors, they are a measure of continued employment. Crowded trains may seem like mere inconvenience, but as Dr. P. M. Forni says, in a close-quartered bus or train, you have in action two of the main incivility-causing factors. These are anonymity and stress. And in combination, they can escalate into violence.

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:

Want to Save Civility in Gaming Culture? Confront the Bullies.
Posted by Lisa Granshaw at The Daily Dot, May 12, 2014

Tito thinks engaging with these commenters is important and that just ignoring them doesn’t solve anything. Giant Bomb news editor Patrick Klepek, who spoke on another panel on the topic called “Why Internet jerks aren’t going to win, and you can help,” agreed.

“I don’t really subscribe to the idea of ignoring the trolls and they’ll go away, because—pro tip—they don’t…” he said. “We need to talk about this because we need to make sure people know what’s happening.”

Klepek points out harassment isn’t exclusive to game culture. It’s more of an Internet problem. He finds that instead of a passionate debate of opinions in his comments sections, there will be a small but vocal group that shouts and bullies.

Parking Lot Civility
Posted by Annabel Monaghan at annabelmonaghan.com, May 15, 2014

In the YMCA parking lot I was wholly focused on my own interests. I’m going to miss my meeting. I’m going to miss my shower. I’m really sweating here. How could this woman do this to ME? Since I was already so involved with myself, I decided to look a little closer. Yes, I too sometimes do thoughtless things that inconvenience others. I sometimes forget to signal or don’t notice that the light has changed. I sometimes stop my car in the middle of the street to chat with a friend and fail to notice the cars lined up behind me. There’s more, but you get the idea.

It was a humbling exercise, and by the time I finished my self-examination I was feeling pretty darn civil. If I can figure out how to make this a habit, then maybe I can keep it together the next time someone parks so close to me that I have to crawl through my trunk to get into my car. Because, guess what, I sometimes park like an idiot too.

ADL Head Warns of Bullies in the Internet Age
Posted by Eve Sullivan at the Stamford Advocate, May 20, 2014

Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he was recently asked to give a college commencement speech, but then one student protested and said he would be a disruption to the graduation.

However, Foxman went “because this was freedom of speech used to bully and intimidate,” he said.

After the speech, Foxman said he publicly embraced the student who asked him not to come. He said the student later sent him an email saying he couldn’t believe the embrace happened, and that it was a lesson in civility.

Foxman said having a true democracy in society has always been a challenge, but he said he wonders whether people are now facing something more subversive.

Commuters Get Squished, Etiquette Gets Squashed
Posted by Samantha Melamed at Philly.com, May 22, 2014

Nationwide, transit ridership is up 37.2 percent since 1995. On SEPTA Regional Rail, ridership grew by 50 percent in the last 15 years.

But it’s a recipe for rudeness, said P.M. Forni, founder of the Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University.

Incivility is an age-old problem, he said. “But in a close-quartered bus or train, you have in action two of the main incivility-causing factors. These are anonymity and stress.”

In other words, it feels OK to be a jerk on the bus, because you’re harried and no one knows you.

But, Forni warned, “Incivility often escalates into violence, and that’s one reason we need to take it seriously.”

Writing a Student Evaluation Can Be Like Trolling the Internet
Posted by Heidi Tworek at The Atlantic, May 21, 2014

Clearly, some students don’t take these assessments seriously, which is particularly problematic for non-tenure track faculty—teaching evaluations have become the singular metric for hiring adjuncts. Predictably, this has encouraged these educators to pander to students and acquiesce to grade grubbers.

But these issues aren’t unique to student evaluations. Course assessments look a lot like public discourse on the Internet, from product evaluations to discussion boards to comments sections on news sites. For some—the comment champions—this shift of power toward everyday users is emancipatory, offering spaces to share thoughts and shape how other people think and view products. For others—the comment curmudgeons—the often-derisive culture of online commenting eliminates chances for civil debate and intellectual integrity.