How Civility Spreads
By Isiah Smith | Dec. 8, 2018
“So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is subject to proof.” — President John F. Kennedy, Jan. 20, 1961, inaugural address
For the third year in a row, the incidence of reported hate crimes in America grew. Incredibly, in 2017 alone, hate crimes grew by 17 percent.
Anti-Jewish crimes rose by more than 37 percent, indicating growing anti-Semitism. The recent Pittsburgh synagogue shooting continued this wretched trend.
Not coincidently, as hateful speech has increased, so, too, have incidents of hate crimes.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Words are actions, and actions are a kind of words.”
How we speak reflects how we think. Our actions are outward manifestations of our thoughts. If you want to know what a person thinks about, watch what he does. Hateful words lead to hateful actions.
National incivility and hate crimes did not begin with the 2016 election. But they havegrown at an alarming rate since then.
Public discourse seems irredeemably broken. Live television “news” panels quickly deteriorate into shouting matches, and Americans everywhere appear angry and alienated. It seems like the only thing we can agree on is that we cannot agree on anything.
Lessons of the Past
American history provides a master class in incivility. It may even be said that the Founding Fathers invented incivility and fostered hate speech. But what we are witnessing today is unprecedented: Now, instead of verbally attacking other politicians, our so-called leaders turn their venom against the very people they are supposed to represent! Then, increasingly, we turn that venom against each other.
As the saying goes, a fish rots from its head and spreads downward.
A cognitive theory of incivility explains how ideas infect and spread. Ideas spread similar to the epidemiological factors that cause diseases to spread: Through contact with a host in whom the disease already exists (i.e., a carrier), the disease is contracted and passed along.
Those ideas weaken the synaptic connections of a healthy brain. After that, we witness more and more instances of aberrant behavior.
These infestations threaten all of us to some degree. What results is a public health crisis that weakens our intellectual functioning such that previously abnormal behavior comes to be seen as normal. We become less civil, more hateful, and more meanspirited, exclusionary, and distrustful — especially toward those we view as “the other.”
If left unchecked, hateful speech will become the Lingua Franca of our political and social discourse.
Experience teaches that for diseases and viruses to be transmitted, they must find a hospitable host. Once attached to a hospitable host, they propagate and replicate and infect other unwitting but hospitable hosts.
That’s how uncivil behavior spreads: by finding other minds susceptible to being infested by harmful messages, demagogy, and fear mongering. Those so infected find their way into various echo chambers that feed upon our seemingly innate tribalism. In such a place new information or ideas are rejected if they do not reflect what we already believe. This is the place where rational thought comes to die.
Darkness blinds and binds such infected minds, and it hides them off from the sunlight, which we know to be the best disinfection. Thus begins the death of civility.
But what is civility? And does it matter?
The Institute for Civility in Government (ICG), a grassroots, and nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to building civility in society(yes, such a group does exist), says that civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs, and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. It is about more than politeness (although that is a necessary first step); it is disagreeing without disrespect, and somehow finding common ground.
ICG says that civility is the ability to engage in dialogue about (and despite) differences, and the ability to listen past our preconceptions. It requires staying present evenwith those with whom we have deeply rooted and passionate disagreements. If we practice civility, we might develop strong interpersonal powers that respect other opinions even if we disagree with them.
The Fifth Annual Civility in America survey found that more than 90 percent of Americans feel incivility is increasing and has reached a crisis level. Research indicates that incivility provokes the fight or flight response, which adversely affects our health and our inability to make good decisions. Impaired decision-making skills exact an enormous burden on our society with devastating, often fatal, consequences.
Neuroscientist and psychologist Mark Leary, author of “Interpersonal Rejection,” suggests that embracing the “humility of uncertainty” — the ability to step into another’s shoes and see things from their points of view — promotes “intellectual humility.” Then we develop the ability to receive and evaluate broad ranges of evidence, and become less defensive when confronted with conflicting evidence.
Historically, leaders at the highest level have set positive examples. Ronald Reagan, a Republican, and Tip O’Neil, Democratic Speaker of the House, enjoyed a civil relationship despite vast ideological differences.
America’s first diplomat, Benjamin Franklin, wrote a humorous piece setting forth “Rules for Making Oneself a Disagreeable Companion,” a humorous look at how incivility harms our relationships.
Franklin wrote: “Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”
Presidents Jefferson and Kennedy also spoke and wrote passionately about the need for greater civility in American life.
Look around. Do you see a Franklin, Jefferson, Kennedy, or Reagan anywhere in sight? Or do you see mindless name-calling, oafishand embarrassingly vulgar behavior, and verbal attacks?
We can no longer rely on our leaders to set good examples of civility. What I fear is that this type of behavior will become the norm, and that we’ll continue to elect, and emulate, persons lacking in basic decency and restraint.
There might be no turning back the tide.
Isiah Smith Jr. is a former newspaper columnist for the Miami Times. He worked as a psychotherapist before attending the University of Miami Law School, where he also received a master’s degree in psychology. In December 2013, he retired from the Department of Energy’s Office of General Counsel, where he served as a deputy assistant general counsel for administrative litigation and information law. Isiah lives in Traverse City with his wife, Marlene.