Reflecting on Civility on Our Eighteenth Anniversary

On April Fool’s Day of 1998, we launched the Institute for Civility in Government by walking the halls of Congress and introducing ourselves and the newly-formed organization we had been planning since the previous fall. We were met with laughter, puzzlement, bemusement, confusion, politeness, and in some offices – real interest. While some people who knew us and had been to Washington, D.C. with us immediately jumped on board with their membership and support, most people – both in D.C. and back home – wondered why we were concerned about civility. Some even asked us what the word meant.

Eighteen years later, people no longer wonder why we are concerned. Civility is one of those things that we tend to take for granted until we no longer have it. It is one of those things that we assume is just the norm until it isn’t. And then, faced with its opposite, we realize that civility is the all-essential glue that holds a diverse society together. It is the grease that keeps daily interactions moving forward and makes life in community possible. In the realm of government, it is what makes problem-solving possible. And we have some big problems to solve.

Since our launch, some things have changed. A 2016 poll by Weber Shandwick indicates that people have a greater awareness than ever of civility’s importance. 95% of participants now believe that its absence is a problem in the United States, compared with only 65% in 2010, when they first did the survey. Fully 70% now say that incivility in this country has risen to “crisis” levels, up from 65% in 2014. Increasingly, lack of civility in the United States has become a source of concern for people. And increasingly, according to the poll, people are ready to do something about it.

But some things have also remained the same. We still define civility for folks, and a lot of people have found our definition to be helpful. For us, civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs, and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. That is the definition that Tomas Spath and I came up with years ago, and it is still the one we and all the members of the Institute stand by today. It does not say we have to agree with one another. In fact it celebrates differences and tells us we should claim them. Differences are enriching. But they are also difficult. And our definition encourages us to focus on why we hold our positions, and on the strength of our beliefs, rather than demonizing those who think and believe differently.

But then as now, a definition – even a popular one – is not enough. Although there is an increased awareness of the importance of civility and a growing concern about its absence, people must take the next step. They must be willing to believe they can make a difference and turn this cultural drift around. They must believe that voices joined are voices heard, and that investments in teaching our youth civility today will pay off in a more civil nation tomorrow. Then as now, we must educate people about the Institute’s existence, and convince them to join.

Since we launched the Institute, a devoted group of Americans – and people from around the world – have joined our cause, and many more have made donations to support it. People have participated in our programs and shared our educational materials, and through that we have built a strong foundation for a movement. This week, on our eighteenth anniversary, is the time for you to add your voice to ours and become a member of the Institute for Civility in Government. It is no small thing, and though you might not see it today, it will make a big difference.

Sincerely,

Cassandra Dahnke & Tomas Spath
Co-Founders, Institute for Civility in Government

Institute Featured in Estes Park Trail-Gazette

Institute Featured in Estes Park Trail-Gazette
Estes Park, Colorado. Painted by Albert Bierstadt. 1877

The Institute, its founders, and its definition of civility were all featured last week in the Estes Park Trail-Gazette, a weekly newspaper out of Estes Park, Colorado. In an opinion piece titled “Civility Matters. Civility Works,” town administrator Frank Lancaster frames the question of civility in terms of sport. Why, he asks, do we tolerate unsportsmanlike conduct in public discourse when we would never tolerate it on the field? Can you imagine if we had the ability to throw a flag for “unsportsmanlike conduct” in a public meeting or anonymous social media posts?

Lancaster, who became the Estes Park town administrator in May of 2012, writes that in his experience in local government, expressing your ideas and opinions in a civil manner is much more effective than ranting, raving and bullying. And by civil manner, he says, he explicitly means the formulation of civility put forth by Institute co-founders Cassandra Dahnke and Tomas Spath: claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.

He goes on to talk extensively about what, in practical terms, this means for how one should conduct one’s self in civic matters. He tells us, for example, to avoid ad hominem attacks: personal attacks can degrade the discussion to an “us versus them” scenario where we can lose sight of the objective. Don’t swear, he says. It is incendiary — not thought provoking. And avoid relying on stereotypes because not only is it insulting, it is counterproductive. Because no group of people all hold identical ideas and beliefs about anything, stereotyping can create a filter that interferes with our judgment in a negative way.

In all, Frank Lancaster offers nine suggestions for creating a more civil public discourse.

His purpose, he says, is to offer a gentle reminder in a time of strife. The town of Estes Park has had some fairly contentious issues to discuss as a community lately. They have, thus far, discussed these issues with civility and respect. But we can always be more effective in our public discussions, Lancaster says. And in that spirit, it behooves us to remember that courtesy and productivity are not mutually exclusive virtues.

If you want to know more about Frank Lancaster and civility in Estes Park, Colorado, click here.