A Slippery Slope

There are headlines across the nation almost every day about violence.  That, of course, is nothing new.  Yet it is disturbing to be constantly assaulted by bad news, and to hear statistics tell us that crime is up, gun violence is up, and polarization has increased, while hate crimes of all sorts become more and more common. 

The reasons for this are many, of course, and the price we are collectively paying is high, to say nothing of individually.  One result is an increased level of stress and anxiety generally, and lost lives in particular. 

There is no one easy solution.  Many issues have to be addressed.  Many long-standing problems need to be dealt with.  And exactly how to go about this is a source of constant disagreement.  But each of us can still play a part in ratcheting down the rhetoric and turning the tide toward safer, healthier communities – and as President George H.W. Bush once said, “a kinder, gentler nation.”  

At the Institute, one of the things we teach is when you disagree with someone, it becomes all too easy to dislike them.  If you dislike them, it is not too hard to demean them.  If you demean them, it is a short step to villainizing them.  And if you villainize them, it can lead to victimizing them.  It is a slippery slope down which any of us can fall.  That is why holding a high standard of civility, even in the midst of disagreement, is so essential.  (This principle is used in much of the Institute’s Civility Training.  A version of this was used as our Quote of the Month in May 2016, crediting Cassandra Dahnke and Tomás Spath.) 

And indeed it is true. It is so easy to find examples, not only in history and the news, but in our own lives, when someone (perhaps ourselves) has started down this treacherous path.  Thankfully, most of us don’t fall too far down that slippery slope.  That said, it takes practice, humility, and a strong commitment toward a respect for others – even in the midst of extreme disagreement – to separate a person’s biases, beliefs, behaviors and practices that we don’t agree with from their value as a human being.  As President Barack Obama said, “Civility requires…relearning how to disagree without being disagreeable.” 

Next time you disagree with someone and you start disliking and/or demeaning them because of it, think again.  There’s a lot at stake.  Creating a little less animosity and a little more tolerance is worth the effort. 


The West Wing vs. House of Cards

During the pandemic many of us have spent a little time binge watching either our favorite programs from years past or perhaps series that we missed out on when we were busier.  I’ve done a little binge watching myself.

One of the first series I indulged in was The West Wing, a well-known show that ran from 1999 to 2006.  I had seen most of it when it originally ran but had not watched it since.  I was struck, coming back almost twenty years later, at how so many of the issues the characters struggled to solve on the show back then are still with us today, including immigration, gun violence, education, and of course foreign policy struggles. 

But the real beauty of the show was how it humanized the people of the West Wing and gave us a peek into what their lives might be like.  None of the characters got it right all the time, but they were portrayed as hard working, dedicated public servants who really wanted to move the country forward.

Not only is this an award-winning series that still captures our attention and seems as timely as ever, but it is one that, anecdotally speaking, has devoted fans on both sides of the political aisle.  I have never met anyone, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Independent or otherwise who was watched this show and not liked it – a lot! 

What fascinates me is that the same can be said of House of Cards, a series that ran from 2013-2018.  This is a series that I had heard a lot about but hadn’t had a chance to watch.  House of Cards is also a look behind the scenes of political power in Washington, DC, but it has a very different take.  Instead of portraying characters who truly have the public interest at heart, the only thing these characters care about is power for power’s sake, and they will do seemingly anything to get it, hold it, and wield it.  (The only exception to this being a few reporters who try to uncover what is really happening.)  It is a much darker view of the political landscape, to say the least. 

The two series could not be more different, and yet they have both endured in their popularity among all kinds of people.  Many of the same people who love one series love the other as well. 

Which, because I believe so strongly that civility is a value essential to both government and communities, brings me to a somewhat disturbing question.  There have long been debates (and no doubt will continue to be) about whether what comes out of Hollywood reflects society or influences it; leads it or follows it.  It seems to me it does both, but it may be particularly helpful to consider the dynamic unfolding in the United States with these two series as our backdrop.

What kind of government/country do we want?  The West Wing version or House of Cards?  Were/are these two shows a reflection of us, or a projection of who are becoming?  Perhaps we should be paying attention to how much the depiction of White House politics changed over the course of a few short years. 

I don’t have a lot of answers here, but we all need to think deeper about who we are and where we are headed than the next election cycle, as important as it might be.  We need to build core social values that allow us a common identity even in the midst of our differences.  And civility needs to be one of them. 


Grassroot Heroes

At the Institute for Civility in Government we are all about building civility everywhere – in homes, local communities, businesses, schools, and government at all levels.  And it is important to build civility in ALL of the communities in which we are a part – not just one or two, but rather across the board.  Thankfully there are many ways we can all do just that!    

Building strong communities and fostering deep civility norms go hand in hand.  And it requires constant attention and care.  A greater sense of civility builds a stronger sense of community, and vice versa. 

Not every conversation has to be controversial.  Not very issue/situation has to be fraught with conflict.  Often it is our daily interactions – the respect and the kindness we show – that allow for a deeper respect and civility when things become challenging. 

The Duluth Superior Community Foundation has a wonderful program that underscores this truth.  Speak Your Peace was originally developed and then expanded through the support and work of community members who chose not to take civility for granted in their towns.  People who chose to get involved, and not sit on the sidelines.  One of them is Anita Stech, who is a member of the Institute for Civility in Government as well.  She is insightful, proactive, and has been tireless in her efforts.  She does not wait for other people to make things happen.  She, and others like her, are all too often unsung and go with little thanks or recognition.  They are our civility heroes, and we need more of them.

In response to the pandemic, these people have worked through the foundation to turn words of wisdom into an opportunity for community members to stay connected, learn from one another, and sow those seeds of care that are so important.  Tune into their Speak Your Peace Listening Sessions and you will hear truths that will ring true for people not just in Duluth and Superior, but for people in similar situations in across the country.  Listen, learn, and consider how you can help build civility where you live – in all of the communities of which you are a part.

Another fresh start….

              Regardless of which political party wins, every inauguration brings with it new hope, new possibilities, and renewed calls for unity and civility, along with a dose of skepticism and displeasure from those among the losing party.  The proportion of hope to skepticism and/or outright resentment may vary from administration to administration, but these are the realities of the dynamic that is ours in the United States.

              While the calls for unity stretch back decades, the calls for civility have grown louder in the last twenty years or so.  When the Institute was first launched in 1998, no one else was talking about civility at the grassroots level.  It was not on anyone’s radar.  There was little understanding, appreciation, or awareness of what a critical element it is to our lives in community or to the functioning of a healthy democracy.  Many simply took for granted that civility would always be a prevalent value in our society.

              As the years have gone by and civility has steadily eroded at all levels of society, concern has grown.  Other organizations besides our own have popped up all over the country.  From local initiatives to national ones, people have sought to prop up this failing element and renew its application virtually everywhere – from homes, to schools, businesses, sports, government and beyond.

              Even as the calls for civility have grown louder, so has the pushback to those calls.  Many arguments and discussions have played out in person, in meetings, and in editorials and articles about whether “civility” is really important or even good for a healthy democracy, with many claiming that it is merely a tool to promote political correctness while quelling free speech.

              Sharing a common understanding of exactly what civility means seems a good place to start in addressing at least some of these frictions.  The Institute defines civility as “claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs, and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.”  That may sound deceptively simple.  It allows for respect of differences and appreciation for diversity.  And when differences of opinion occur, it takes hard work.

              The events of January 6th in this country and the necessity of massive security on January 20th sharply illustrate that the peaceful transfer of power, once a trusted hallmark of this country, cannot be taken for granted.  If civility is valued as anything, it must be seen as less a weapon for restricting freedom of speech, and more as an essential tool to keep our government, our society, and our lives in community running as smoothly as possible.  Without it, the very freedoms we all cherish are in jeopardy. 

We’ve got a lot going on in this country and around the world.  There are a lot of problems to be addressed.  Let’s do what we can to do it together – civilly.