In today’s contentious world, people hunger for a return to civility in public discourse. More and more, fury seems to fuel our fractured political climate. This “us versus them” mentality has far-reaching implications. It drowns out meaningful discussion. It thwarts progress. Most critically, it leaves a broad range of serious problems unaddressed and unresolved.
What can we do to restore civility to the public square?
First, we must understand what it means to be civil. Civility is often defined as politeness. But civility is more than just being polite. The word civility comes from the Latin civilis, which means citizen. Another Latin derivative is civitatem – defined as “the art of governing” and “courteousness.” As citizens, then, civility starts with us. It starts with each of us making an individual choice to be civil; choosing to show graciousness, consideration and respect.
Second, we must recognize the need for civility. In my work as a college professor, I spend a lot of time educating my students about civility. These young people want freedom of speech – they want the right to say what they think, the right to express themselves as they please. But most of them don’t understand why it’s necessary. They don’t realize that civility goes hand-in-hand with free expression.
Civility is necessary for effective communication. It shows a respect for others and makes them feel valued. Author P.M. Forni describes civility as a form of “benevolent awareness” – a recognition that thoughtful and caring people have different views. Stephen Carter stresses that civility doesn’t require us to mask our differences but to resolve them respectfully.
Third, we must embrace civility as a personal responsibility. We cannot control what others say and do, but we can control our response. We can monitor and manage our reactions, listen more and talk less. We can express a willingness to engage in genuine discourse and seek common ground.
My work implementing global health initiatives taught me that civility is not the absence of conflict. Nor is it complete harmony on all decisions. It is a balance. As I worked around the world developing leaders and strategic directions on behalf of the International Council of Nurses (ICN) and the World Health Organization (WHO) for example, we established rules of engagement centered on civility: bring everyone to the table, build public/private partnerships, keep the conversation going, respect others and share your voice. This simple strategy helped us overcome differences and reach consensus solutions that benefited all people of the world.
This month, as you resolve to exercise more, eat less and get more sleep, consider an additional pledge: make 2018 the year you become a more civil citizen. ‘To Be or Not To Be Civil’ is a choice. My 5 C’s of Civility provide a roadmap:
I hope you chose to be civil. Happy 2018!
Stephanie Ferguson, PhD, RN, FAAN