How Incivility’s Individual and Social Harms Aggravate Each Other*

Comparing incivility to disease helps bring home some of the ways its negative effects on individuals and society interact.

disease photo

Incivility presents itself “clinically” as disrespect and discrimination, on one hand, and self-certainty and an unwillingness to acquire new information or consider alternative opinions, on the other.  Disrespect and discrimination don’t cure themselves; closed minds don’t open all on their own. But is incivility likely to spread if not checked?  Yes.  Unchecked, incivility tends to be “virulent” because some find it immediately gratifying while bystanders may perceive there’s something (however morally questionable) to be gained from it.  Responding to uncivil behavior with civility, meanwhile, requires a robust “immune” system nurtured by the twin convictions that civility is every citizen’s due and in our long-term self-interest.

At some point, the spread of incivility begins to affect not just individual citizens, but the wider body politic. Society’s ability to heal the damage inflicted by incivility is diminished, its ability to stop further infection reduced.  So it is that the clinical effects of incivility begin to have effects on “public health”, which in turn aggravate its “clinical” effects.

As the vicious circle of incivility continues, individuals are hurt, but so is society as a whole. Society, too, loses the collective capacity to cope with new challenges, new information, and new possibilities. It loses the ability to learn and apply its learning. Ironically, this imposes a subtle second cost on individuals. As individuals, we lose chances to learn about our self-interest and about our collective interests. If we aren’t learning from one another, then we lose doubly—first as “private citizens,” then as citizens with social commitments.

Another of the “public health” impacts of incivility as we’ve seen, is gridlock, which has “clinical” effects of its own.  The harder it becomes to accomplish collective tasks—whether through government or through other social agencies, groups—the less people will engage in their work and the less they pay attention to it. Again, the individual learning that responsible citizen decision-making depends upon suffers.

If gridlock paralyzes our collective efforts, faction ruptures them. But the “’clinical” effect on learning is the same. When faced with warring factions, individuals will be tempted to either join a side or retreat to the safety of their private fortresses. They will be under pressure to protect themselves by responding in kind or surrounding themselves with walls. Interaction becomes scary, and learning takes a back seat to peace and quiet or self-preservation.

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


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