Civil discourse, the engagement in conversation intended to enhance understanding, is a basic underpinning of democracy. For our system of democracy to work, we have to talk and listen to each other and be careful how we things. But sadly, in today’s society civil discourse seems to be evaporating.
A 2019 poll by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate with KRC Research, which has tracked the state of civility in the U.S. since 2010, found that the vast majority of Americans — 93% — identify the loss of civility as a problem, with 68% classifying it as a major problem. Social media is viewed as a major cause of the rise of incivility — 63% of those polled said that, in their experience, the impact of social media on civility has been more negative than positive.
The eroding state of public discourse was evident — perhaps more evident than usual — at Greenburgh Town Board meetings last week. During the 2020-21 budget talks, some residents were disrespectful or talking over one another. Tensions escalated around a perception that the board was trying to bury the discussions. Later, at the public hearing to consider changes in the town’s tree code, things also turned decidedly uncivil and combative, with instances of inappropriate language, and emotionally charged outbursts.
Civility starts with each one of us. We must teach civility to our children. That includes modeling the behavior. We must report incidents and intervene when others are being treated uncivilly. We must call out those who are uncivil in public or in the workplace. This applies to public interactions as well online — before you say something, take a minute to think about it and remember, language and tone really do matter.
It is up to us to find solutions that will make our government and society work better. As the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona wrote: “We have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement.”
Let’s work harder to find the common ground.