Am I Naïve to Still Believe in Civility?

There has been a lot of discussion about “civility” or more appropriately, the “lack of civility” in so many areas of society. You would think that it would be a “no brainer” that civility is a good thing, right? You know, by being polite, being respectful, actively listening, etc. However, some have argued from another position by stating that civility “is just a sham” and is only invoked by individuals and groups that want to silence the opposition with their warped interest of “civility.” Maybe I am just living in the past (which is easier the older I get), but I felt that civility used to be more commonplace, and I honestly miss it.

For example, in my freshman year of college, I had to prepare and present a persuasive speech in my Communications Class. Since it was an election year (1984) I decided that I would persuade my class to vote for the re-election of President Ronald Reagan. On the day of my speech, I dressed in a suit and tie and spent 15-minutes sharing my case of why I believed President Reagan deserved re-election that fall. (For those old enough to remember Michael J. Fox in “Family Ties”, yes, I was the embodiment of Alex P. Keaton!)

My speech was then followed by a short “question and answer” session where I had to defend my position to my class. I would estimate at that time the audience was likely skewed in opposition to my position by about a 75%-25% margin, including my instructor who was from Minnesota and a supporter of the eventual Democratic nominee, the former U.S. Senator from Minnesota and former Vice President, Walter Mondale.

While some questions were pointed and challenging to answer, I felt that none were disrespectful. No one shut down my speech. No one resorted to name calling or made insinuations about me or my beliefs. I finished my speech, received a short applause from the class, and had a few of my classmates come up to me and afterwards to say, “there’s no way I’m voting for that guy, but thanks for trying.” I ended up with an A minus on my assignment and President Reagan went on to win 49 out of 50 states in the fall election.

Fast forward to today. I cannot imagine any scenario where I could deliver a similar type speech in a current college class. Not only in politics, but in so many aspects of life, the concepts of civil debate have seemed to have all but disappeared. I would imagine if I gave that type of speech today, particularly in support of a candidate that the majority in the class did not support, I would likely be shouted down, possibly bullied either verbally or even physically, and maybe even doxed on social media. Depending upon the instructor, it would not surprise me to be asked to submit a “more appropriate” assignment or fail. Rather than challenge contrary thoughts and ideas with…wait for it…other thoughts and ideas for some, it’s easier to just shut down those we disagree with or worse yet name call or become disrespectful. It seems that the era of “agreeing to disagree” after a respectful exchange is long gone, and I miss that.

Those that know me well, know that I often love to play “devil’s advocate.” One of my favorite exercises during classes was to take the opposite side of an argument and defend it. I love seeing both or even multiple sides of an issue. I do this with many things and often it takes me longer to reach a conclusion than most. I like to think that it is objectivity that I value and realize that the most obvious answer or solution is not always the best one. I am not one who is afraid to adjust or even change my position if my thoughtful analysis directs me to do so.

Nowadays, everything seems to be so much more polarized and we are often forced to immediately choose a side and once you have chosen, destroy those in the opposition or even scold those that have not chosen for whatever reason. Civility, respectful debate, searching for common ground…these concepts seem almost nostalgic in much of today’s world, particularly on social media. I miss the days of being able to discuss sometimes controversial topics, yes even religion and politics, in an open and respectful forum and learn, particularly from those that I may initially disagree with, about their stances and beliefs, even if we don’t end up in agreement. Instead, we now often just choose our side and then our choices are to either fight or stay silent (sometimes in fear of retribution), neither of which seem all that productive.

Unfortunately, I do not know if civility will remain a distant novelty of the past, but I still hold out hope. While I think the world has changed considerably since I gave my persuasive speech back in the mid-80’s, I don’t know that I have changed that much. I still like to view complex issues through a prism of discovery. I challenge myself and others to see beyond the obvious. I respect the thoughts and opinions of others without sacrificing my own beliefs. It’s just that these types of conversations seem to be fewer and far in between as so many choose just to be uncivil or just “get along to get along” rather than engage in difficult discussions that often result in greater outcomes. Maybe if more people chose to engage with civility, the common good would not seem so uncommon these days.  

“…civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

President John F. Kennedy

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