If there’s only one thing that everyone in America can agree on, it’s that our country has become more polarized and partisan than ever. Many of us are appalled by our elected representatives’ lack of civility, because we realize that the health and stability of our government demand that people on opposite sides of the political spectrum work together.
At the same time, most of us have few qualms about being uncivil to each other. How can we demand civility from our elected representatives when we wear our own incivility like a badge of honor?
I think most of us agree that partisanship and incivility are hurting our country, but we continue to behave uncivilly towards each other. It doesn’t make sense. When someone who disagrees with me insults my intelligence, morals, or sense of justice, I don’t feel persuaded by them; I feel angry, and I don’t want to listen. Incivility doesn’t change minds; it hardens hearts.
Personally, I am tired of complaining about the toxic political atmosphere without trying to do anything about it. I can’t do much about how my elected officials behave, but I can do a lot about my own behavior. To start with, I’ve decided not to write, speak, or pass along partisan rhetoric in public or online. I’m also going to try to change my attitude. When I meet someone who disagrees with me, I’m going to do my best not to assume that they are misinformed or just dumb because they disagree with me. Instead I will try to understand why they think the way they do, and look for some common ground.
“But those people are completely unreasonable!” you may be thinking to yourself. “Why should she waste her time?”
I felt that way, too, until I realized that my understanding of what the other side thinks is warped. Why? Well, consider the contexts in which most of us learn about what other people think. First, through traditional media—left-leaning or right-leaning—where competition for viewers and advertising means that partisan hyperbole often wins out over thoughtful discussion. Second, through social media, where many of us freely write and share thoughts that we would not be comfortable telling someone face-to-face. Third, through negative political speeches and campaign ads, where the goal is to spur voters to action at any cost.
Reasonable, thoughtful dialogue is not likely to come from any of those contexts, so I’m trying to tune all of this out as much as possible. At the same time, I haven’t given up on civility in government. I do want my elected officials to act civilly. But I can’t honestly expect or ask them to be civil to each other if I’m not civil to my fellow citizens. So instead I’m making an effort to be civil, to be respectful, and, most importantly, to listen.
Guest contributor Eileen Youens teaches and advises local governments and government contractors about public contracting, public construction, and conflicts of interest. She also puts her litigation training to good use in negotiating with her two-year-old daughter. Eileen tweets at @eyouens and blogs at youensconsulting.com.