Urgent Civility Retreat: The State of Civility in America

By December 15, 2016Uncategorized
U.S. Capitol Building

Wow.  I just had the privilege of meeting with 23 of our country’s most notable intellectuals, doers, and creators in the simple, yet oh-so-complex world of CIVILITY.  We were each chosen for our unique perspective and while I’m honored, I am also humbled (and fairly sure that I might have been chosen by accident).

The United States Capitol was the view from our boardroom. Our focus was on the magnificent country that it serves and represents.  How do we work together as a small group and ultimately, as a country, to reframe and revive the ways in which we treat one another?  How do we accomplish this while also balancing:

The positive strides we’ve made in individual rights

Our nation’s founding principle of welcoming all faiths and cultures

The unique identities of each of our geographically widespread states


The incredible, quickly evolving world of virtual human engagement?

Well, the basic answer is—not easily, not superficially, and certainly not quickly.

My mind is still racing from the range and depth of yesterday’s discussions, but I am able to come up with a few recurrent themes.  The first is The Golden Rule.  There is a reason that various forms of this societal regulator were found in ancient cultures all over the world.  Remember, these were cultures with Gods, cultures without Gods, and most obviously and yet startling, cultures who certainly had no communications among them.  Treating others as you would like to be treated seems simplistic, easy really.  What it requires, however, is the awareness and mindful caring to actually do it.

The Golden Rule is often not enough, however.  We are no longer discrete cultures living lives among others who are a lot like us—same backgrounds, same beliefs, probably even very similar outward appearances.  We are a huge country made up of very different cultural beliefs and expectations and yet, we have to work together.  The problem is that sometimes the way I’d like to be treated is NOT the way you want to be treated.  in fact, I may be offended if you treat me as you’d like to be treated.  Hmmmm… This is a problem.

For this reason, there are many proponents of The Platinum Rule—treat others as they would like to be treated.  This also sounds fairly simple…except…it requires taking the time to learn about and “tune in” to others—individually and culturally.  Again, we see the need for awareness and caring.

Regardless of the metal of the rule you choose, either will require communication and respectful disagreement. Disagreement is to be expected in human engagement.  It is, in fact, desirable.  Growth and understanding come from listening to another viewpoint, no matter how different it is from yours.  This is another area that requires awareness and caring. It also requires having the tools and the space to do so.  That space could be the kitchen table or the local bar, but it is also now inevitably the virtual and global space of social media.

This world of virtual engagement has the ability to unite citizens of the world in ways never before possible.  This can lead to incredible discussion, often broadening thought, and perhaps even, allowing it to evolve.   In order, however, for this communication to remain open and civil, we must remain mindful of some important considerations.

As one our participants and keynote speakers, Dr. Amitai Etzioni, noted, when actions or discussions occur in intimate locations, there is context—not so in the global virtual platform.  His example was a good one.  If you live in a small town and Mr. Jones drives by the elementary school at 90 mph, townspeople might already be aware that Mr. Jones’ elderly wife just passed away and that his children are hard at work convincing him that he should no longer be driving.  In the lightning fast world of social media, however, once it is reported that someone drove past an elementary school at 90 mph, that person, without context, is immediately vilified.  By the time (if ever) a context is established, we have moved on to the next “villain”.

Another consideration when interacting “virtually” with other humans is the understanding of cultural expectations and differences.  I find in many of my trainings, clients are perplexed by the subtle changes in expectations from one U.S. city to the next.  They are absolutely floored by the responsibilities of learning cultural differences among countries.  While traveling in person, one has the opportunity (and hopefully, takes it) to study ahead of time.  While engaging in social media browsing, posting, and commenting, however, users typically remain grounded (literally and figuratively) in their own cultural environments, leading to further vilifying and isolating.  These cultural disconnects occur in the professional and political arenas every single day.

Dr. Bobby Austin, a member of our small group, who sits with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the advisory board of Citizenship Counts, refers to civil society as a “public kinship”.  Before our group meets again, I would like to know your thoughts about our country’s kinship:

What are your ideas about the state of Civility in our American states?

Robyn Jackson

Author Robyn Jackson

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