Civility in America is suffering

A recent event at Wichita State University marking the transition of power from this year’s student body president to the incoming 2017-18 leader nearly resulted in a brawl.

When the outgoing prez included some remarks in his speech to the effect that he did not like his replacement, but he would support her, the parents of the president-elect took exception. Words were exchanged, and tensions allegedly accelerated to the point that campus police were called in to settle things down.

At a Red Sox game the other day, a fan tossed a bag of peanuts and a racial slur at a visiting outfielder. He has reportedly been banned from the stadium for life.

Unfortunately, this type of confrontation is becoming all too familiar. And, given the current state of civility in America, all too predictable.

The headline of the 2016 Civility in America study, an annual Weber Shandwick survey of politeness or lack thereof, says it all: “U.S. Facing Civility Crisis Affect­ing Public Discourse and Political Action.”

In part, the study showed, “Nearly all Americans, 95 percent, say civility is a problem, with three-quarters (74 percent) saying civility has declined in the past few years. Seventy percent also say that incivility in this country has risen to ‘crisis’ levels, up from 65 percent in 2014.”

This annual study was completed and its results released before the 2016 presidential election. Like most polls, it seemed to struggle to predict how at least one candidate’s disrespectful tone might affect the outcome.

“Civility in America 2016” also finds that while incivility is capturing the attention of the public and the media in the presidential race of 2016, Americans say it may not capture their votes.

While 83 percent of likely voters report that they are paying close attention to national politics, nearly all likely voters (93 percent) say a candidate’s tone or level of civility will be an important factor in deciding how they cast their votes in the 2016 presidential election, with more than half (52 percent) saying it will be a “very” important factor.

Likely voters also see negative consequences of uncivil behavior: 79 percent say incivility in government is preventing action on important issues; 77 percent say the U.S. is losing stature as a civil nation; 76 percent say incivility makes it difficult to even discuss controversial issues; 64 percent say they have stopped paying attention to political conversations and debates; and 61 percent say incivility is deterring people from entering public service.

So, while Americans are becoming more and more divided in their political opinions, they are apparently becoming less and less willing to tone down the rhetoric when discussing the issues. That’s not a pleasant combination. And, it is our responsibility as American citizens to change the direction of this undesirable discourse as quickly as possible. The next generation is watching and learning from our behavior.

The question is not should we clean up our speech, but how? Where do we begin to turn this trend around? I suggest the place to start is at the most basic level.

In our homes, we must work to make sure we treat each other with respect. If we cannot engage our parents, children and siblings respectfully, we have indeed arrived at the point of no return. Is it not possible to correct a child without berating him or her? Cannot an offspring speak to his or her parent in a way that communicates the love and respect members of the older generation deserve? We don’t have to agree, but we do have to live with each other.

Members of the same church congregation are notorious for a failure to get along at times. They will argue over the type of music in a worship service, how the minister has allotted his or her visitation time and even what pew can be occupied by which family. Though these things may have some earthly consequences, they are of no divine value and certainly not worth losing one’s religion over.

Lack of civility has perhaps grown most obviously in politics. It seems impossible these days to calmly discuss differences of opinion on government matters. People would rather shout each other down than listen to each other. Elected officials seem to be much more concerned about how conservative or progressive they can be, depending upon which group they are seeking to impress.

Demonstrations and counter demonstrations are the rule of the day. The best way to deflect this divisiveness is to refrain from fueling it through social media. Don’t believe everything you read, and, for heaven’s sake, do not pass along material that you suspect is not true or that you know will anger those on the other side who read it.

Finally, I am hearing more reports of racial slurs being tossed about, sometimes with impunity. If someone needs to resort to the use of epithets to make a point, he or she has already lost the argument. Ethnic and racial equality can be the ultimate form of respect; prejudice has no place in modern culture.

When we witness one group disparaging another, it is not enough to merely distance ourselves from such language, we must point out the harm hate speech can do.

There is no question these are tough times for civility in our country and around the world. But, if we can make a difference in our own corner, our example just might start others on the path to higher levels of courtesy and respect.

Bob Woelk teaches English and journalism at Hillsboro Middle/High School. He can be reached at woelk@embarqmail.