Vinegar of politics needs honey of civility

Personal attacks in politics are a mirror of a society's slide toward social incivility. How can civility be restored? The topic is attracting interest.

As the race for president heats up, so, too, do the words of candidates and their supporters. The latest extreme examples? A Dallas pastor who is a Rick Perry supporter denies Mitt Romney is a Christian while labor leader James Hoffa threateningly calls on Democrats to “take out” Republicans.

Fortunately, this kind of incivility – the rudeness, personal attacks, and prejudice – is attracting more attention. Researchers, pollsters, and others are studying the effects of vitriolic rhetoric on democracy and looking for ways to promote civility in society.

After US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot last January by a deranged man, the University of Arizona in Tucson set up a National Institute for Civil Discourse. It hopes to become a “counterweight to the dominant business and media model of our age which attracts an audience by catering to existing fears and beliefs, rather than challenging them.”

Next month, the University of Iowa in Iowa City is holding a two-day program on finding “the line” between conflict and civility in politics. Last year, a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that about 80 percent of American adults say a “lack of civil or respectful discourse in our political system” is a “somewhat serious” or “very serious” problem.

Individuals are speaking up, too.

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns decries “the loss of civil discourse” in America and asks for a civility to “confront together difficult issues even when we may disagree.” Mr. Romney himself – no stranger to attacks on his Mormon faith – warns Republicans that “poisonous language ... has never softened a single heart nor changed a single mind.”

Adding to this interest is a new British study released this week that looks at how people treat each other in day-to-day life, such as not using cellphones in enclosed spaces.

It found Britain remains a well-mannered and courteous country, a place where politeness and reciprocity in empathy may be even prevalent than they were a couple decades ago. But it cites long-term trends that could decrease civility.

Conducted by the social think tank The Young Foundation, the study is called “Charm Offensive: Cultivating civility in 21st Century Britain.” It finds that people are worried about keeping codes of courtesy in the face of ethnic diversity, time constraints, and the ease of digital technology to spread inflamed and often anonymous rhetoric.

An individual’s experience of incivility shapes the way he or she feels about a community and society in general even more than crime statistics, the study finds. It suggests solutions in decreasing stress, improving the quality of public spaces, and giving people a sense of belonging and a stake in their surroundings.

“A communitywide effort to cultivate small acts of courtesy and compassion in our daily lives will yield greater results, over time, than top-down approaches which try to enforce respect,” the study suggests.

Other research in the United States finds that incivility rises in politics when people are more ideological, divided, and frustrated. Politicians engage in personal mudslinging only as much as society tolerates it.

The British study’s main point is that treating others with respect and kindness can spread easily when enough individuals practice such behavior. That sets the moral climate to help keep politics less muddied.

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