The Virtue of Civility

This past weekend I had the opportunity to listen to the October 2014 General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the LDS or Mormon Church). Occurring in April and October of each year, General Conference is an opportunity for believers to gather and listen to the general officers and leaders of the Church. In the Saturday Afternoon Session, one prominent Mormon leader, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, made the following plea:

“On the subject of public discourse, we should all follow the gospel teachings to love our neighbor and avoid contention. Followers of Christ should be examples of civility. We should love all people, be good listeners, and show concern for their sincere belief. Though we may disagree, we should not be disagreeable.”

That got me thinking—was this just some more hippie-esque “turn the other cheek” fluff for Christians and other God-fearing individuals? Or was Elder Oaks delivering some universally applicable counsel about a serious communication problem filling our television networks, newspapers, and personal relationships?

Wanting to go off something a little more empirical than just my own gut reaction and life experience, I performed a quick Google search and found a fascinating study from Weber Shandwick, a public relations firm located in nearby Sunnyvale. The 2013 report of their annual survey entitled “Civility in America” suggests there may actually be something of a ‘civility crisis’ in America.

Americans report encountering incivility, on average, a whopping 17.1 times per week (that’s 2.4 times per day), with about half of these experiences occurring in an online setting. Additionally, half of all Americans say they have ended a friendship because of uncivil behavior. Another quarter of the nation said they had quit a job because of an ‘uncivil workplace.’

Respondents identified politics as a root cause of this widespread incivility—62% accused politicians of worsening civility, with 82% saying incivility in politics was ‘endangering America’s future.’ 80% agreed that civility ‘won’t improve until our government leaders act more civilly.’ Perhaps even more saddening, over a third of Americans identified the “uncivil expression of political views” (whether online or in real life) as the grounds for ending a friendship. The ever-increasing polarization of the American electorate suggests these trends will continue.

Of course, there is a fair amount of subjectivity to these kinds of inquiries. After all, not everyone has the same definition of what constitutes ‘incivility.’ But in matters of civility, it is precisely *how *others perceive our words and actions that counts. A major component of treating others with respect is being sensitive and accommodating to their feelings and beliefs. In light of this, these statistics are as legitimate as they are disconcerting.

In my time at Stanford I have determined that a leading cause of incivility in political discourse is a feeling of superiority about or an overwhelming confidence in the correctness of one’s position. Indeed, we may actually feel justified in demagoguery or personal attacks if we believe the issue at hand to be “sufficiently settled.” As Professor James Smith pointed out in a cheeky Wall Street Journal article addressed to rising college sophomores:

“Unlike during those first few months of freshman year, your thinking on almost any subject now is becoming easy to predict. The causes you’re passionate about, while not without merit, are almost clichéd. You seem less interested in mining the complexity of problems and more interested in making a hasty display of moral outrage and coming down on the correct side of any debate—because of course there’s only one right way to think.”

Intolerance towards those of a different opinion, no matter how misguided or narrow-minded their view may seem to us, is still intolerance. Rebuffing prejudice with prejudice is both hypocritical and counterproductive and takes us off our moral high ground—assuming we had it to begin with. Name-calling, vulgarity, and mudslinging do very little to persuade, and mostly reveal the insecurities we have about ourselves and our positions.

As Elder Oaks elaborated, we don’t have to be human doormats without strength or spine to be calm and civil: “Even as we seek to be meek and to avoid contention, we must not compromise or dilute our commitment to the truths we understand. We must not surrender our positions or our values.”

It’s hardly the stuff of wimps or cowards.

As a writer and obsessive policy wonk, I am not lacking in opinions. As a rather loud and passionate individual, I usually do not lack the courage to express them, either. But just because we stand for something doesn’t mean we have to be bombastic about it. The impact and depth of our religious, moral, and political arguments will be much greater if we do more listening and less shouting.

I, for one, am committing to do better.

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