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A Plea for Civility in Public Discourse

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

By Vanessa Lopez-Littleton
March 2, 2018

 “We are allowing market values to drive out nonmarket values.”  – Stephen L. Carter

While some see political dysfunction as a threat to democracy, others consider it a product of uncivil civic engagement. The notion of a threatened democracy has been fueled by hyper-partisanship, political gridlock, divisive rhetoric, conspiracy theories spread by social media and concerns of voter fraud. But, the true threat to civil discourse is the rejection of the need for civility in representing the will of the people. Civility relates to the formal manners in which citizens treat and respect one another. Working in public sector service in the U.S. means accepting a country with myriad historic insults and legacies not easily (nor should be) overlooked and the delivery of services to groups of people who are the American citizenry.

When private sector leaders serve in public institutions, there should be mechanisms to ensure the ideals, which bely public service values are upheld. In “Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy,” Stephen L. Carter argues “we should make sacrifices for others not simply because doing so makes social life easier (although it does), but as a signal of respect for our fellow citizens, marking them as full equals, bot before the law and before God.” Now more than ever, there is need for public sector personnel to demonstrate civility in a manner that unites the country. In the midst of political divides shaped by staunch divisive rhetoric, this is a plea for a rejection of those who would undermine efforts to create an inclusive and just society, which values equity and the equality of opportunity it can bring.

President Donald Trump’s reference to African countries and Haiti as “shit hole countries” is a poignant example of the use of language by a government official that represents a level of disrespect for Africans across the diaspora. The impacts and implications of the use of this language are felt beyond the confines of his utterance. I was in Port-au-Prince, Haiti when the alleged comments were made.

These following are sentiments shared by my colleagues.

  • “I walked away from my experience thinking Haiti is a beautiful country, full of passionate hard-working people. President Trump’s insult of countries with majority Black populations represents a regression towards a level of public disrespect not shown by leaders in this country in a while, if ever. Words have power and contribute to the disruption of the unity of the American psyche. As a society, we must value and respect one another. I continue to hope for a brighter, more respectful future for Haiti, African countries, and people of African descent around the world.” Alisha Mann, Lecturer, California State University, Monterey Bay
  • “The comment was rude, but at the same time Haiti does have its challenges. There are challenges in our political system, with our infrastructure and the amount of aid that comes into the country. There is a disproportionate amount of opportunity for employment, education and social mobility. We have the human capital, but the system does not support the reinvestment of dollars into the Haitian economy. When we get contracts, a large proportion of the dollars are paid in salaries to people who are do not reinvest in the Haitian community. The notion of social mobility for many Haitians is almost non-existent.” Anonymous, Haitian-American (resides in Haiti)
  • “The words were insulting to Haitian-Americans, a group of people looking for economic opportunities in the U.S. The words came on the anniversary of the devastating earthquake of 2010, which killed more than 200,000 Haitians. All we are looking for is opportunity, the same opportunities afforded other immigrant groups. President Trump’s decision to remove Temporary Protected Status from Haitians shows the regard he has for the country and the people.” Stacy Raymonville, Regional Manager, Souls for Souls Haitian (resides in U.S.)

In an ideal society, all public servants, including the President, would embrace the ideals of the ASPA Code of Ethics. Of particular relevance is the need to construct ethical organizations by holding individuals accountable for their conduct (including their words). Then identifying avenues to strengthen social equity by treating all persons with fairness, justice and equality.

I am not arguing that civility should be required, as freedom of speech is guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. Instead I argue for civility on principle, as a necessary and proper exception. The U.S. Supreme Court case of Jacobson v. Massachusetts ruling noted, “The liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States does not import an absolute right… There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good.” As such, there are times when the rights of the individual are superseded by the rights of the common welfare. If ever there were a time to promote civility in public service, surely that time is now.


Author: Vanessa Lopez-Littleton, PhD, RN, is an assistant professor in the Department of Health, Human Services and Public Policy at California State University, Monterey Bay. Her research focuses on social equity, cultural competence, and racial and ethnic health disparities. She may be reached at [email protected] or @DrVLoLil

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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