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Have We Lost All Civility?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Peter Melan
April 17, 2019

Where has civility gone in politics? Short answer—there is apparently none left. Given the nature of the political world today, it is no mistake that elected officials and those seeking elective office are permitted to make outlandish comments towards their opponents or merely those who are of differing opinions. Ridiculing someone based on a handicap or disorder is not uncommon today. Threatening bodily harm to an opponent is also acceptable. Losers are unable to be just sore losers and lick their wounds or try harder next time. If the ship is going down, might as well bring other people with you and humiliate your opponents without any personal accountability. And there are the sore winners as well!

As a society, we should rise to the occasion and hold ourselves responsible for our personal actions. What happened to offering an apology? Today, an apology is an admission of guilt, and heaven forbid that we commit an error and admit fault. And let’s not forget that it may not be that we did something wrong or committed some criminal act: optics play an important role in our lives. What you may have said could have been interpreted incorrectly, regardless of intent.

Debating the issues today seems to be more of a political prank than offering opposing sides of the issue. We are quick to react to someone who may not agree with a view or have a visceral reaction to an off-handed comment that was not intended to be defensive but rather an alternative opinion. What I have personally learned is that all of us will never agree on any one specific thing but allowing someone to openly express their opinion or argument is what our forefathers stood for and was the foundation of our society and democracy.

As elected officials, regardless of the level of government, there is a high level of morality and respect that comes with the job, but there seems to be lack of these qualities lately. Of course, we all try to avoid headlines that are unpleasant, but we are also humans and commit errors, as do our constituents. The only difference is that we should be held to a higher standard when communicating and behaving in the eyes of the public.

Can we bring civility back? The short answer is I hope so. And not necessarily because we choose to be uncivil, but because we have come to a crossroad where the true meaning of the word has been decimated by our elected leaders. This is not a partisan complaint but a human complaint. Some may read this piece and think I’m a liberal or a socialist or whatever the buzz word is today for those of us who may disagree with someone. Apparently, we can continue to use words that are hurtful or even lash out in public when predicated by an opposing view, but at what cost?

If you read any literature surrounding conflict management and human behavior, one point stands out. At the seventh stage of conflict, a point has been reached where no possible compromise exists, and how the message is received bears little or no consequence. We have come to a point in our democracy where we seek destruction of anyone who opposes our views or questions authority. Folks, the fact of the matter is that we can do better; just check the battleaxes and swords at the door so we can solve problems in a civil manner without vitriol. Maintaining civility and respect for each other is our best hope for a prosperous future.

How this relates to public administration is simple yet complex. Public administrators should be the mediators and make every attempt at remaining neutral without becoming political. In today’s world, that is a very difficult balancing act. Elected officials are sometimes their own worst enemy by incorrectly stating facts in a public setting, which brings its own set of problems. It is much easier for the administrator to remain silent and not offer conflicting information so as to not further debate or try to embarrass an elected official during their speech. Comments back and forth between constituents and leaders in public meetings based on incorrect information creates a toxic environment of incivility. A simple interjection from leadership could put an end to the debate. Is silence golden when incivility becomes a result of two parties debating a topic with facts that are patently false, or is the interjection necessary to quell everyone’s tempers and offer the correct information to place everyone on the same page? We should pause and consider becoming part of the solution to incivility as mediators instead of allowing people to speak with very little evidence to substantiate their argument.

Author: Peter Melan is an at-large councilperson in the City of Easton, PA and the chair of public safety. He is in his first year of graduate studies in Public Administration at Ohio University. Peter is known for his creativity in solving problems using non-traditional methods, and for his experience in project management and data analytics.

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