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For the Record: The lost art of civility

It would be a lie to say that civility is the answer to all the ills of modern politics — local, state, national and global. But damn folks, now that this election is over, let’s give it a whirl.

I’ve covered a lot of governmental boards, commissions, councils and what-have-ya’s and have witnessed decent behavior most of the time. And while there have been disagreements and arguments, they seldom break down into full-fledged feuds.

From my experience, when things do get ugly and stay ugly it usually starts during an election, when emotions and stakes are high. People running for office lay awake at night and do a lot of wondering “what if.” And sometimes, especially in more partisan contests in more polarized places, that means that two people who are miffed at each other have to share a very public space at regular intervals.

I once was assigned to cover a school board (in another state) where one board member sat with his back to the others. And though the individual was outnumbered on the board, he had his supporters in the audience who coughed and jeered and stared down the other members.

It was a lesson in civics from hell, and while I was initially repulsed — along with being initially baffled since I hadn’t covered the election that led to it — I came to believe that every kid in the district ought to have had a chance to witness what happens when adults go feral.

Most of the time, lines are crossed in elections not by a candidate but by a zealous supporter, and the wrong is that those actions aren’t repudiated, or not with enough force, to satisfy the offended party. Add to such insult the enormously complex and pressure-filled task of running — even on a local level — and our species-inherent tendency to assign a reason or a rationale for everything, and you have the genesis of conspiracy theories, the discovery of cabals and machines or the all-to-prevalent notion that powerful people are out to “get” the folks they don’t agree with.

And while there certainly are political people who are intent on crushing their enemies and boosting their friends at the local level, here it’s hardly done with the finesse and maliciousness you see in the movies or the anger witnessed every night on Fox or CNN.

Nope, around here some people in politics simply don’t like other people in politics. That may be a reason not to be chummy or plan family outings together, but it’s no reason to support one or another policy. Sadly, the second victim in such squabbles — the first being truth, of course — is the best interests of the people they represent. I’ve seen good ideas delayed or shot down not on their merits but as a result of who was carrying the water.

That’s the kind of attitude that exists all too often in the workplace or the schoolyard, but when it comes to making decisions for all of us, there’s no call for it

4 Responses

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  1. Richard


    Civility, where art thou?

  2. Ruby Sinreich

    Hear hear! Well-put, Kirk.

    I am still struggling with the dilemma of how to deal with bad behavior. If we’re polite and look the other way, some folks take than as an invitation to keep going. If we call it out, we risk sinking to their level, or seeming to.

    Ultimately, I believe that transparency is the best approach. When people have all the facts, they can decide for themselves.

  3. Geoff Gilson

    Well said, Kirk and Ruby.

    There is no argument that ever swayed an audience that lost any of its impact because of the delicacy of its touch.

    An interesting counterpoint is this: it is often easy to confuse incivility with disagreement or a point of view with which one does not agree.

    In England, we have the concept of ‘Loyal Opposition.’ It would be nice to see more of that sort of approach in Carrboro – on both sides!

    A willingness to welcome new thinkers and thinking on the one hand, and on the other, a desire to engage with those already in place, without necessarily bashing them on the head first.

    Another aspect to a healthy democracy which is still civil is accountability. More often than not, that requires a media that is fearless about asking questions, without being uncivil and without tough questioning and commentary (or even some respectful satire) instantly being misinterpreted as being uncivil.

    I’ll be honest, Kirk. I wasn’t sure that the Carrboro Citizen was going to perform that latter role too well. But you’re winning me over!

    The best of luck to you!

  4. Shaun Dakin


    I liked your commentary. You may be interested in what we are trying to do at Citizens for Civil Discourse.


    Shaun Dakin