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NAU Business Dean: A Plea for Civility

VanSlykeUnfollow (an odd word to anyone not familiar with social networks) means to no longer be notified of someone’s status updates. Recently, I seem to be on a bit of an “unfollow” tear on Facebook. Essentially, unfollowing someone is a kinder, gentler version of unfriending (another new word) someone. Why am I unfollowing people? Because I’m so tired of the level of incivility among supposed friends. The news is rife with controversial issues, immigration, gun control, climate change; the list goes on. Each of these, at one time or another, results in decidedly uncivil interactions often among otherwise nice people. As we go into the heat of another national election season, the incivility gets worse. I suppose that the relative distance created by online platforms, such as Facebook, leads some to write what they would ordinarily never be so impolite to say, but there seems to be a general incivility that goes beyond the Internet.

All of this led me to think about incivility, especially in the context of debate or disagreement. Many have called for a return to civil discourse (although I’ve been unable to identify just when we’ve had true civil discourse). Civility has been a topic of interest for a long time; George Washington copied an English translation of an old French text on manners when he was 14 years old. Manners are all well and good, but are much too rule-focused for my purposes. I just want us to be nicer to each other. The world is a rough place for all of us. Why do so many want to make it even rougher?

The word civil is related to the Latin word for city (civitas). One way to think of civility is those who practice civility are fit to live with others, as we do in cities. From this line of thinking, we can conclude that in order to live effectively in the presence of others, there needs to be some degree of civility. Without civility, in order to live together, we need laws and means for enforcing those laws. If everyone acts civilly, we need fewer laws, which sounds good to me. Most of us were raised to have a certain level of civility when our parents taught us to be polite, or taught us rules of conduct. Why then do we seem to forget civility so frequently?

To me, it seems that three factors contribute to incivility. The first is a lack of humility. At its core, civility requires humility; it requires an acknowledgement that we’re not at the center of the universe. This humility gives us the realization that we need to behave in ways that recognize others and their feelings. This leads us to our second factor. Civility, especially civil discourse, requires us to not only acknowledge that others are important, it also requires acknowledging that we may be wrong. One of the things that makes a controversial topic controversial is that the answer or solution isn’t obvious. The correct path is unclear. Pick any of the many difficult challenges facing our society. Regardless of the issue, I don’t know the answer, and neither do you. You may think you know, but you don’t. You may believe in an approach, but you don’t really know if it will work. Sure, we can and should apply evidence and reason, but at the end of the day, there are too many unknowns to really know the answers. (By the way, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t advocate for certain positions or solutions. It just means that we should listen to contrary views, as I noted in an earlier column.) Finally, incivility comes from cluelessness. Sometimes we’re simply unaware of how we appear to others. We just don’t think about how we come off to other people. Most of the people I’ve unfollowed are nice people. They aren’t trying to be uncivil, they just seem a bit clueless about how they may be perceived.

Now that I’ve had my little rant, let me offer some thoughts on how to become more civil. Let’s look to Aristotle for some guidance. (You really didn’t think I’d go a whole column without mentioning a philosopher, did you?) Aristotle’s idea of practice is the key to becoming a more civil person. It starts with awareness of the need for civility and when you’re acting uncivilly. Then you’ll need to make the conscious decision to act more civilly. Over time, acting civilly becomes a habit, and eventually a part of who you are. You’ll become a more civil person.

Let me close with the following points. Civility doesn’t mean weakness. Civility doesn’t mean a lack of resolve. Civility doesn’t mean capitulation. Civility means being considerate. Civility means being nice. Civility, in the long run, means finding better solutions, together, as a civil society. FBN

I’m honored to lead Northern Arizona University’s W.A. Franke College of Business, home to over 3,400 students, and faculty and staff who are dedicated to the success of those students and the economic development of Northern Arizona. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: http://www.franke.nau.edu/. I welcome comments and feedback on these columns. Email your comments to: craig.vanslyke@nau.edu, or follow me on Twitter @cvanslyke.




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