In the United States of America, we have a participatory form of government, meaning that citizens have a voice in making our laws and policies. Ours is a representative form of democracy on a national, state, and local level called a federal republic. Any form of citizen self-government requires open discussion of issues, citizen to citizen, citizen to representative, and representative to representative.
These discussions may or may not cause people to change their positions on issues, but they can provide a deeper understanding of those issues from differing perspectives. If successful, there is at least an understanding of how and why others’ opinions may differ from mine.
To make laws, regulations, or policies, there needs to be productive debate, compromise, and even collaboration among legislators. This may sound easy enough, but the issues for which laws are made can be difficult and complex. They usually require negotiating the rights of various people. These can be things like immigration, abortion, gun ownership, pandemic regulations, taxation, and social programs. These are issues for which many citizens have deep concerns and opinions because they are, or feel they may be, directly affected by laws governing them.
To have a productive discussion, there needs to be a sense of equality and even unity. We can start with what we have in common. We both care about a problem, even if we have different opinions about how to solve it.
We’re both citizens of this country and want what’s best for the country. We respect each other; therefore, we want to know more about each other’s perspectives. We will learn things from each other and possibly find ways to compromise so we each get perhaps most of what we want. Whether we get what we want or not, we’ll continue to respect each other and our right to our own opinions. In a word, this is civility.
Civility is powerful. It’s not just being polite. It’s finding ways to connect with other people. It’s understanding other people have something of value to say, even if I don’t agree with it. I’ll consider what they have to say because I expect they’ll consider what I have to say. Civility is not easy, especially if one is passionate about the issues being discussed. It’s much easier to dismiss opinions different from our own, but that behavior can deadlock a discussion, a community, a state, and a country. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to listen to each other and to do the hard work of self-government.
Can you imagine how engaging, enlightening, and productive a town hall meeting, a school board meeting, or a debate in Congress would be if everyone were civil? I think our founders did.
Our founders set our democratic experiment in motion in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. It seems we’re failing to achieve their aspirations. We have two major political parties that, along with the news media, social media companies, and ourselves, have turned the important business of self-rule into sports entertainment.
Each of the political parties has developed opposing extreme platforms, with no desire to compromise, collaborate, or solve problems. The parties only endorse and fund candidates who adopt their platforms. The parties aren’t interested in helping candidates find ways to solve problems for the country. They’re interested in attracting donors and voters to their ideologies.
The news media are funded by advertising, and advertising is supported by viewership. To attract viewers, the news media sensationalize everything, including the important business of running our country. They use headlines and short clips taken out of context to get our attention 24 hours a day, regardless of the newsworthiness of their reporting.
The news media have abandoned objective reporting, by choice. To attract and retain an audience, the various news media outlets have divided up the American people by political ideology. So now, rather than getting unbiased news with which to form your own opinion, you must decide through which of the ideological lenses you want to receive the news.
Social media companies are also funded by advertising, but they’re even more culpable than the traditional news outlets. The traditional media attempt to adhere to some form of truth and integrity, even if biased. Social media companies provide a platform to allow anyone to report anything they want, regardless of truthfulness. Worse yet, these companies have developed algorithms that — based on what one posts and reads — recommend similar content and subscribers. The result is worldwide echo chambers in which like-minded people reinforce their own opinions, regardless of truth.
There is also sinister misuse of social media by foreign actors to destabilize our country. By representing themselves as US citizens concerned about the well-being of our country, they post false content with the specific intent to undermine our government and cause hysteria.
Lastly, there are the American people (including members of Congress) who accept all this sensationalized, biased, and false information without questioning its validity and react without civility. We call each other names. We vilify anyone with a different opinion. We attack and retreat into our self-selected echo chambers to rearm ourselves for the next attack.
Where I live in northeastern Connecticut, there is a crumbling foundation problem. The foundations of a significant portion of the single-family homes, condominiums, and apartments built in the early 1980s are falling apart. Some of these structures are literally caving in on themselves. A particular quarry from which stone was used to make concrete contained a mineral called pyrrhotite. When pyrrhotite is exposed to oxygen and water, it reacts with the other minerals in concrete. After 20 to 30 years, the concrete disintegrates. The only fix to save the structure is to lift the building off its foundation, remove the old concrete, and install a new concrete foundation.
Our lack of civility is pyrrhotite to our country. Ben Franklin probably couldn’t have imagined social media or maybe even pyrrhotite in concrete, but I believe it was our potential lack of civility to which he was referring when he said, “You have a republic, if you can keep it.”
Let’s go about keeping it. The only fix to save our country is to reinstall civility in our foundation.