by Glen Pearson
“When civility is illusory, war is inevitable,” wrote author Steve Maraboli not long ago. You don’t have to look very far for verification of his claim. While some opponents will make nice in the next couple of weeks for Donald Trump’s inauguration, it won’t be real and it won’t be effective at creating cooperation.
We are increasingly living in a world where there is little common space where people of different opinions can hang up their weapons of verbal combat at the door before they partake in productive policy exchanges. There is already blood on the streets of Washington D.C. but it’s just not the literal kind. People are learning to hate, despise, mock, jeer, troll, attack, belittle and demean at levels rarely seen in the public space. And it plays itself out in local hangouts, various forms of media, and even at the recent Golden Globe awards.
Suddenly “being nice” isn’t so nice anymore. Even progressives who mocked Donald Trump’s arrogance and rhetoric have turned ugly as a result of the election. But this isn’t about who won; it’s about who voted. Trump successfully garnered over 60 million votes on his way to victory (yes, I know, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote). This wasn’t just some muckraker who bludgeoned his way to the White House. Donald Trump capitalized on the angst citizens were feeling towards the political system. Like it or not, he connected with voters in ways that were stunning. And the point is that he had the help of millions of Americans. This was a troubled democracy in action, with all its foibles.
The key now isn’t for those who lost to pour out their wrath on every political institution, but to begin the hard process of creating fair and respectful places of dialogue and debate in the public arena in order to bite back on the encroaching hatred. In democracy, the winners are supposed to be the citizens – they vote freely and are expected to abide by the results, whether or not they like it. But if both sides – winners and losers – continue in their animosity towards one another, no one will win. Like Martin Luther King Jr's. thought on the descending cycle of violence, the ongoing back and forth of political verbal violence can only lead to divisions so deep and profound that national healing can never occur. Ongoing opposition from Trump's opponents is to be expected, but not if it leads to a scorched earth democracy.
If Americans want to halt the decline, it won’t be by electing Republicans or Democrats, but by rising above their own disenchantment and anger. It has been clear for decades that the partisanship of the professional political classes has become increasingly dysfunctional, regardless of which party held power. This is what politics has become in many countries, and not just in America. Its only solution is to discover new ways of showing respect, creating places for consideration and dialogue, even when we don’t feel like it. Or as Kevin Stirtz put it: “To work best democracy needs a diversity of thoughts, ideas and expression. This is only possible with civility.”
In an era where everyone looks to venues to give their opinions, it is vital to remember that democracy’s prevailing strength isn’t in its opinions but in its consensus. Unless this is achieved among citizens and politicians, democratic decline is inevitable. Civility doesn’t get in the way of truth but is rather what is required to make truth discoverable in the public arena. Exercised properly, civility opens the door to consensus by keeping the players in the room long enough to establish common ground.
The key to recovering our political health is to interact with those we might disagree with without holding their opinion against them. The point isn’t to best them, but to find accommodations so that we can live together based on our commonalities, while yet respecting our distinctions.
"I hold to the idea that civility, understood as the willingness to engage in public discourse, is the first virtue of citizens" ... Mark Kingwell
These are hard truths, but then again these are hard times for democracy. It is all about making civil society real. If our political representatives can’t do it because of partisan dysfunction, then the millions of citizens who no longer belong to such parties must find ways of making politics real and workable again. There is no diversity without tensions, but neither should their be public spaces without respect. Far from being passé or redundant, civility might prove our only way forward.