How do we mitigate incivility?

 As a columnist, I’m allowed to point out a problem like the rudeness permeating our society and say nothing more. If I were a politician, I would be pressed to admit problems only when I could propose a solution–preferably, a detailed, economical, and attractive plan that others would support. 

A reader pointed out that, even as instances of rudeness and bullying become more common, they still involve relatively small numbers. The same article stating that the FAA handled 5,338 instances of unruly passengers in 2020–one breaking a stewardess’ teeth–also mentioned that 53 million airline passengers were expected during Thanksgiving week. Even if only 10% of the unruly incidents are serious enough to report, that’s fewer than 1 in 1,000–of one busy week’s passengers.     

We must take care not to spread the blame. Just because more students are committing acts of vandalism, doesn’t mean that all students are vandals. If a bathroom is out of use, most students are victims, not perpetrators.

(And two readers pointed out that Barry Goldwater, not Ronald Reagan, originated the assertion that “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.”)

But neither my status as a commentator or the relative rarity of extreme incivility lessen my desire to find ways to mitigate the current breakdown in civility.  

Businesses have used several techniques familiar to teachers. A sign explaining the situation and asking for patience. A timeout period. A one-on-one talk. A behavior contract spelling out the rules of conduct and the penalty for not following them.

And these actions have probably helped. They get people to stop and think and can make a person feel they have been heard.  

But the current wave of incivility is not just people with frayed nerves losing control for a moment.  

Some are suffering from mental breakdowns. They want the hurt to go away.  Others are acting like bullies because it feels good to dominate and to be part of an in-group.         

And many are fighting for a cause important to them. Wearing a mask isn’t about discomfort, it is about liberty. Insisting on being treated with ivermectin isn’t about accepting science, it’s about fighting for life. Refusing to get a vaccine isn’t about eradicating a virus, it’s about not letting others decide what goes into your body.  

Two of Idaho’s healthcare leaders have said those fighting are not at fault; they have been fed misinformation. And, rightly, these leaders use the media and public forums to transmit the scientific findings used by medical professionals.   

That’s what our forefathers envisioned when they wrote freedom of speech into our Constitution. After hearing arguments, adults–at least a majority of them–would find truth.  

That assumption of rationality is the basis of democracy; the majority will decide responsibly. Saying that people are not at fault because they have been lied to is equivalent to saying that democracy itself is built on a false assumption.   

Adults in a democracy are responsible for the decisions they make. The fact that we have elevated people who lie and intimidate into positions of respect and responsibility are signs of weakness in our country. 

Our options are limited.  

We can go back to the days when the media had to present both sides. We can allow people who’ve acted on the basis of a lie to sue for damages. We can have judges in our courts act as truth panels and disburse fines and prison sentences. Or we can merely hang on and hope enough people realize they’ve been bamboozled before it is too late.

Our democracy has survived such challenges before. But many have not.    

Published by Judy Ferro

Judy Ferro is communication director for the 2C Dems and a columnist for the Idaho Press.

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