New Year, fresh beginning. This is our opportunity to turn the page and start a new chapter, so let’s top the resolution list with one simple but essential to-do item:
After a particularly nasty (and unprecedented) 2016, we’re in desperate need of minding our manners both in the public sphere and in our private lives. I can’t imagine it getting any worse than it already is — but then again, I also thought the same at the cusp of last year and I was miserably wrong. We’ve done an exemplary job of wallowing in the mud. Of slinging it at each other, too.
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It’s not just incivility that has spread like a bad cold. We also refuse to listen to others, we’re quick to label, and happy with ignorance and lies. And yes, while this is about the presidential election, it’s also about a lot more: our growing inability to recognize that sometimes our opponents may have a point. They may even be able to teach us something, however small.
Stigmatizing those who disagree with us, no matter how their beliefs curdle our blood, drags us nowhere fast. We cannot go on like this.
Let me be upfront. I did not vote for Donald Trump and I often cringe when he opens his mouth. Yet, I have three longtime friends who voted for him and, if afforded a second chance, would do so again without a blot to their conscience. Their decision, for me at least, defies explanation.
These are all white suburban women with good jobs and post-graduate degrees. We care for each other deeply and I would trust them with my life, but on this one issue, no matter how much we argue, we realize we will never agree. Listening to them, however, has taught me that labels are not only counterproductive — deplorables they are not — but they also limit my understanding of a realm beyond my own. I suspect my friends might admit to benefiting from a similar lesson.
Civility is neither about surrender or the stifling of debate. Civility does not ignore bigotry or abandon beliefs. The exercise of civility, however, does mean that you don’t stoop to the level of crudeness and name-calling we’ve witnessed these past few months. Such behavior has slowly and steadily eroded the most basic rules of respect and courtesy.
Yes, there are racists, and yes, there are homophobes and xenophobes and white supremacists. They most definitely should be called out on it. They will never make America great because hate doesn’t build anything, it only destroys. So why stoop to their level? Why make dignity the victim?
In an essay for Psychology Today, a Georgetown University business school researcher lists the consequences of incivility. It inhibits problem-solving and collaboration, it curtails engagement and motivation, and it allows spite to trump rationality.
Most disheartening? Being around incivility is more likely to lead to dysfunctional and aggressive thoughts, with people acting more selfishly even when cooperation would pay off. “Our environment rubs off on us,” writes Christine Porath, “and if our environment is toxic, we can expect to stay somewhat sick and pass it on to others.”
No more. In 2017, I, for one, refuse to spread the contagion along.