Can’t We all Just Get Along? The Death of Civility in Politics

May 22, 1856 The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner- https://www.fold3.com/page/641416599-charles-sumner

Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

In recent times we have witnessed a steady increase of violence stemming from competing political ideologies. However, political violence is nothing new. Historical examples are plentiful, including the French Revolution, Slavery and the Civil War, racial violence during the Civil Rights era, Nazism and the September 11 attacks. One particularly alarming example that may be akin to what we are seeing at political rallies today is in 1856 the “pro-slavery South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks went into the Senate and beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, an ardent abolitionist, with his cane, nearly killing him.” Although we are shocked by these historical examples, it seems that we are seeing an unfortunate return to a violent political past in America. Social media and the news is full of protesters arguing, getting into fist fights, using clubs and sticks to attack protesters and now recently we see a disturbing increase of people resorting to mass murder because the perpetrators adhere to a white supremacist political ideology.  

In Alan Golds article “The Death of Civility in Politics” he asks several questions:

“Just how rude has today’s life become? And just how much is the tone of our politics to blame? Does it sometimes feel as if our politics has us all backed into our ideological corners? Does it seem as if insults and name-calling have taken the place of civil dialogue – that incivility has gone viral?”

In the article Gold cites New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg who states “I think the country is in crisis… it’s less a result of a breakdown in civility than a breakdown of democracy… We have a crisis of democracy, not manners. I think the demand for civility can be used as a tool of oppression when it only goes in one direction – when you demand civility from the ruled, but you don’t demand civility from the rulers.” Goldberg’s primary argument is that civility has to be a two way street. It has to come from our elected officials as well as the masses.

In a democratic society it is very important that people get to share their voice and that they feel comfortable coming to the table to discuss any subject. However, if certain parameters are not in place and certain guidelines of civility are not in place it can be very difficult to have a meaningful conversation. For example, it can be very difficult to hear when individuals from both sides of a particular debate are talking past one another. It is also difficult to share one’s true feelings if they fear that they will suffer consequences as a result of voicing their opinion.

The concern in the United States today is people’s seeming lack of ability to have any tolerance for opposing socio-political views. It behooves us to try to be more open minded and tolerant of other people’s view and those that disagree with us. There is an increasing need for people to have the ability to have a civil discourse and conversation and not lose one’s temper when someone disagrees with them. The country is divided in many ways, this is ironic because one of the core values of the American democractic society is tolerance, diversity and multiculturalism. America has been known as the melting pot, where individuals from various cultural, racial, political and social backgrounds can co-exist. Scholars have even moved from the metaphor of the melting pot to the salad bowl. With the salad bowl, people do not sacrifice their identity to adopt Euro-American values, instead, they hold on to their cultural background but at the same time embrace what it means to be American. There are growing divisions in US society along many ideological and social lines, these divisions often stem from debates between democrats and republicans, European Americans and people of color, rich and poor, along religious lines and many more. 

The social studies classroom is a great place to teach students the idea of civility. Social studies teachers often have very strong political and sociological views, but should be the first line of defense in demonstrating to students how to be civil. Teachers can set up scenarios where students learn to discuss or debate controversial topics without being disrespectful or worse becoming enraged and acting upon those emotions. I have included some resources below that can help teachers lead students in conversations and exercises surrounding civility and having a civil discourse.

Lessons and Strategies for Civil Discourse
Civil Discourse in the Classroom- Teaching Tolerance
Three Steps to Civil Discourse in the Classroom- National Council for the Social Studies
Promoting and Maintaining Classroom Civility
Teaching Civility Helps Students Look Beyond the Importance of Good Manners
7 ways to teach civil discourse to students

References
Will Politics be the Death of Civility?
National Institute for Civil Discourse
What is Civil Discourse?

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