In January I spoke at the Flint Area Public Affairs Forum on the topic of “civility in the social media age.” The other panelists included a University of Michigan-Flint professor, a social media expert and a Democratic lawmaker.
Here at the Mackinac Center, we think carefully about modeling civility. We’ve had to, as we think about the critics who have spat upon us, protested outside our office, sued us and lobbed death threats.
Civility is defined by researchers at CivilPolitics.org as the ability to disagree productively with others, respecting their sincerity and decency.
Civility is not conflict avoidance, a lack of disagreement or taking the moderate view. It is not using government to silence “the other.” Rather, it is a thoughtful inquiry into another person’s conclusions. It is the presumption of goodwill in spite of a disagreement.
Impertinent questions come to mind: Do we truly want civility? Does it matter as long your view prevails?
I answer “yes” for several reasons:
Innovation is spurred by divergent thinking. We will best solve the state’s challenges by engaging a wide range of ideas. Civility allows for respectful, creative engagement.
A conversation imbued with civility is more productive because it is more persuasive. Think about the last time someone pounded the table and loudly questioned your intelligence. Did that convince you to change your mind? Hardly. As advocates, we grow our numbers through persuasion, not taunts.
Civility increases “social capital” — the necessary grease in the gears of the Republic. Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” noted that for all the individualism of Americans, they are constantly organizing associations and fraternities. Civil society, driven by the voluntary participation of individuals, operates best if respect is a valued trait.
Civility has a strong and necessary complement in free speech. It is fruitless to call for civility without also advocating for the right of all people to express themselves freely.
“So, what can any one person do?” asked my friends at the Flint event. I came with four ideas.
- Focus on what you can control: One person can influence his or her personal conduct far more immediately than structures or institutions. Twitter publishes 500 million tweets daily; one person may not be able to influence that deluge.
- To paraphrase a well-known saint, seek to understand, more than to be understood. Two books can inform the curious reader: “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt and “The Three Languages of Politics” by Arnold Kling.
- Intentionally interact with people who hold different perspectives. It’s a fascinating exercise and aids your ability to persuade.
- Reduce the calamitous noise around policy and politics by reducing the stakes. Limit government to its core functions so it's not in every area of our lives.
David French of National Review has asked: “Is there a single significant cultural, political, social, or religious trend that is pulling Americans together more than it is pushing us apart?” In this rancorous time, we would all benefit from finding areas of common ground.