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: Traffic, Facebook, and More on Tom Schweich

Civility Linkblogging
A Lynx, because Linkblogging

This post is part of an ongoing series that highlights discourse about civility from around the Web. We glean the links in this segment from as broad a cross-section as we can manage of blogs, newspapers, magazines, and other online venues, from the United States and around the world.

This week’s edition of civility linkblogging is somewhat eclectic. It includes a follow-up to last week’s post about the suicide of Missouri state auditor Tom Schweich. But it also includes an article about parenting that reflects on how to teach children about dealing with incivility. It includes some advice about Facebook. And it includes a reflection on the relative success of civility and community-mindedness in San Diego, California.

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:

Practicing Civility in an Uncivil World
Posted by Elisabeth Fairfield Stokes at The Washington Post, February 25, 2015

I have always made an effort to put things in context for my children, when they have been sad about mean behavior on the playground or as they start to become aware of larger truths about suffering in the world, but I had not been doing that for myself, I realized, not really. I was protecting myself with anger, too.

I now turn and look at people when they’re rude to me, not afraid, I hope, to show them that they’ve hurt me just a little, and let them see that hurt, not the anger and ugliness that we so often put up in front of our pain. Maybe their pain will see mine, and we’ll recognize something in each other that reminds us that being a little kinder is the only rule we ever need to know.

Three Ways for Facebook Users to Handle Offensive or Abusive Content
Posted by Amina Elahi at The Chicago Tribune, March 3, 2015

Facebook policy prohibits harmful or hateful speech, including that which glorifies violence or threatens others, [Monika] Bickert said. She said the company relies on community members to report abuse, which staffers review and deal with accordingly.

“We want to give people a variety of weapons,” Bickert said.

She outlined the different ways Facebook users can handle offensive or abusive content.

Civility: An Impressive Regional Achievement
Posted by Malin Burnham and Steven P. Dinkin at U-T San Diego, March 5, 2015

San Diego has been blessed with a regional trait that makes those advantages possible: We share a belief in the power of “community before self” and we know how to cooperate in pursuing common goals and building a stronger society.

Over time, our regional culture of collaboration has been tested by a series of political and economic challenges here at home and on the national stage, and it has proven resilient at every turn. We think it’s important to keep that in mind as we prepare for a new election season and confront the complex issues impacting our community.

After Tom Schweich’s Suicide, Kansas City Council Urges Political Civility
Posted by Lynn Horsley at The Kansas City Star, March 5, 2015

In the wake of Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich’s suicide, the Kansas City Council on Thursday adopted a resolution urging civility in politics and in the coming council elections.

Councilman Ed Ford was the lead sponsor of the resolution, which got unanimous council support. He said it was prompted in part by Schweich’s untimely death in the midst of an apparently vicious whisper campaign about his candidacy for governor.

“The eloquent words of (former) Sen. (John) Danforth at his funeral put a lot of things in perspective,” Ford told his colleagues.

The resolution cites Danforth’s eulogy at Schweich’s funeral, in which he said, “Words do hurt. Words can kill.”

Civility in American Life isn’t Dead, But it’s in Decline
Posted at Lehigh Valley Live, March 8, 2015

Let’s be clear: Civility isn’t the fuel of democracy, it’s the primary lubricant. You can conduct business at full throat and invective; it just doesn’t work very well, and the gene pool for good, interactive government shrinks. It confirms the growing sense in American politics that common ground is unobtainable, even undesirable. It’s for wimps, and no one ever accomplished anything through reason.

You can go online and see what good-public-manners advocates say about civility. A public relations firm, Weber Shandwick, tracks people’s opinions on this. It comes as no surprise that a large majority of Americans says we’re getting more ornery every year. Yet to do anything about it risks the likelihood of being shouted down.

It’s like we’re feasting on our ability to listen.