How Incivility Harms Us as a Society*

Incivility doesn’t just harm us as individual citizens; it harms us as a society, too—in at least three ways.

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First, by making it difficult—if not impossible—to engage in reasoned exchanges, incivility short-circuits our ability to search for both answers and common ground.

The second harm that incivility inflicts on us as a society goes beyond making it harder for society and our institutions to explore and adopt the best available policy options.  Incivility also makes it harder to adopt any coherent public policy options at all.

The idea of democracy doesn’t prescribe that we head in the same direction—only that we stick together as we move forward. Incivility makes that harder because it weakens the ties that hold us together as a democratic nation.  The weaker we are, the less we’re able to control our collective fate, which takes on greater meaning when you consider the many pressing challenges we must face together.

As the ship of state begins to look rudderless, crewless, even clueless, the Constitution’s mandate to “promote the common welfare”, and even the very possibility of a government “of, by and for the people” are called into question.  Some people might rejoice at the idea of a government that’s adrift, but a government that’s dead in the water isn’t much use to anyone, least of all to those who depend on it for protection.

James Madison begins the most famous treatise written about American politics, Federalist 10, by repeating a warning about the danger of factions put forth by his ally, Alexander Hamilton. Madison observed that “removing the causes” of faction can only be accomplished by “destroying liberty” or “giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests”—a frightful evocation of 1984 almost two centuries before Orwell’s famous depiction of a society of automatons.

Yet Madison believed that liberty and diversity could be preserved and the dangers of faction contained—not by abolishing faction, but rather by “controlling its effects.” How? By pitting faction against faction.  This was the basic design principle Madison enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, of which he was the principal architect. In historic terms, the system has worked remarkably well—but only to the extent that competing factions have remained civil and chosen to discuss and broker their differences. Remove civility and the sparks that Madison saw as inevitable between factions will no longer illuminate our way, or be adequately buffered by our system “checks and balances.”  Remove civility, and the sparks are instead likely to smolder, shrouding our collective endeavors in smoke.

A third and more insidious problem with incivility is that the more it spreads, the more it is tolerated and the more corrosive it becomes. As it becomes commonplace, it becomes the rule. People begin to think, “that’s just the way things are.” It becomes a habit and, as habits go, it is probably just as hard to break as any other. In the long term, that may be the most ominous threat of all.

* Adapted from Let’s Talk Politics: Restoring Civility Through Exploratory Discussion, by Adolf G. Gundersen & Suzanne Goodney Lea, Chapter 1.

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