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Civility in Crisis: What you can do about it

Civility in Crisis

(Originally published in the October 2017 issue of The National Notary magazine.)

"Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present." — George Washington

On August 12, Heather D. Heyer lost her life during a chaotic rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia. The 32-year-old woman, a Notary Public, had joined a group of counter protesters to voice their opposition against white supremacist ideology. According to those who knew her, she was a passionate advocate for the disenfranchised and was dedicated to campaigning against hate.

Heyer was killed when a 20-year-old man from Ohio — described as having radical beliefs about white supremacy — reportedly drove a car into the group of counter protesters. Nineteen other people were injured.

Heyer paid the ultimate price for standing up for her beliefs. And while tragedies like these are rare, her story is a sobering illustration of just how destructive our country’s decline of civility has become.

The impact on our social fabric is so significant that a record-high 69 percent of Americans believe we are amid a major civility problem, and 75 percent believe the problem has reached crisis levels, according to a recent study. Gone are the days of courtesy, integrity and respect amid opposing viewpoints. Instead, political or social discourse often results in harassment, intimidation, threats, discrimination, cyberbullying and even violence.

Heyer was a victim of that ugly form of discourse, even though she was in Charlottesville to lead by example in advocating for civility. By nature of their duty to protect consumers and the public trust, America’s 4.4 million Notaries Public consistently practice the pillars of impartiality, civility and public service. Her motives were in line with the spirit of the Notary community, and illustrative of the examples that Notaries set every day.

Still, despite the country’s festering environment of conflict and hatred, experts believe there are solutions that can significantly improve our relationships and lives. And in recent studies, Americans have demonstrated a clear desire to improve civility in our nation.

How did we get here?

"Little progress can be made by merely attempting to repress what is evil. Our great hope lies in developing what is good." — Calvin Coolidge

This situation didn’t happen overnight. In fact, indications are that the problem began decades ago and reached crisis levels during the 2016 presidential campaign. In a 2017 study titled Civility In America VII: The State Of Civility, researchers established the top five causes:

  • The behavior of politicians, role models and systemic issues in government
  • The rise of the internet and social media
  • The competitive mainstream media and the 24/hour news cycle
  • America’s youth culture
  • Demonstrators and protestors

Additionally the study, conducted by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate in partnership with KR Research, revealed that most Americans are reluctant to take responsibility for the crisis. In fact, 94 percent of people polled said they always or usually act civil, and are respectful of others.

“All of these elements have driven us to the state we are currently in, as we have developed a culture of reactivity instead of personal reflection,” said Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, Ph.D., Executive Director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD).

“We have watched the behavior of our leaders and role models decline amid hyper-partisanship. The 24-hour competitive news cycle has led to instant reactions and opinions where news is being reported before the facts are clear. And the anonymity of social media has emboldened those with more extreme positions to reach and embolden countless others to spread those beliefs,” Lukensmeyer continued. “What we are now seeing is three decades of structural and cultural problems that have led us to this level of vicious rhetoric and behavior.”

One of the most telling examples is the mood in America following the 2016 presidential election, which vaulted uncivil, venomous rhetoric in politics to levels never before seen in our country’s history. Now 11 months after the election, Americans continue to demonize and attack those who voted against their candidate of choice.

But following the 2000 election — a similar controversial contest in which George W. Bush won the presidency — America’s reaction was much different. “People kept their discontent focused on Bush — a singular person,” Lukensmeyer said. “None of it was about your neighbors, friends or family like it is today.”

America’s mood is also having a significant impact on our country’s workforce and productivity. The NICD is increasingly receiving inquiries from executives at major U.S. corporations which need to rebuild trust and cooperation in their workforce. “They tell us that most of their important teams have not recovered their capacity to work at the same level of productivity since the election, and they want our help. This is so surprising to me,” Lukensmeyer said.

It’s obvious that the civility crisis has become a chronic condition. Americans have become accepting of behaviors that would have been shameful not too long ago. And in some cases, uncivil behavior is applauded and rewarded.


Click to view full size chart.

It wasn't always this way

"Be civil to all, sociable to many, familiar with few, friend to one, enemy to none." — Benjamin Franklin

Ironically, what many Americans have forgotten is that our current crisis of incivility is occurring in a country that was founded on the very ideals of civility, partnership and compromise. We would not have a U.S. Constitution were it not for the Great Compromise of 1787.

But even though conflict and hatred is winning most of today’s headlines and Social Media posts, we are surrounded by reminders — past and present — that keep our country’s core ideals alive. To be sure, we have not always been this uncivil.

America’s Notaries, for example, often serve document signers whose beliefs or lifestyles run contrary to their own. But even if the document being notarized is tied to issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, immigration or other hot-button social issues, Notaries remain impartial and uphold their central duty to serve the public and protect them from fraud.

Medical professionals face even more daunting civility challenges. Their patients can be of any race, national origin, belief system or education level, and they are often sick or suffering. As a result, medical professionals repeatedly face slights, rebuffs, injustices, rudeness, embarrassments and many other uncivil acts. But again, most medical professionals take the high road.

At a macro level, great things have been achieved in our country during times when our leaders and role models acted more civil, and patriotism took precedence over partisanship.

On June 10, 1964, 27 Republican senators partnered with 44 Democrats to vote in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. President Lyndon Johnson signed the act into law nine days later. Getting there, however, wasn’t easy. At the time Democrats controlled the Senate with 67 members. But 21 southern Democrats opposed the bill and launched the longest filibuster in Senate history. Then-Democratic majority leader Mike Mansfield and his counterpart, Republican Senator Everett Dirksen, joined together and rallied across party lines to end the filibuster and pass the historic Act, which included the 27 “yes” votes from Republicans.

What you can do about it

"We must be ever courteous and patient with those who do not see eye to eye with us. We must resolutely refuse to consider our opponents as enemies." — Mahatma Gandhi

Civility is an important ideal in the American tradition. And while we are amid a crisis threatening the livelihood of that ideal, there are plenty of ideas and tactics we can employ to restore it. It begins by practicing a basic concept: Look in the mirror instead of pointing the finger.

“In my experience, something magic happens when we look at each other and keep the best versions of ourselves and others in our eyes,” said Tyler Hester, the outgoing Senior Managing Director at Teach for America in Richmond, California — an organization working to improve civility among educators.

The good news is, individuals, groups and organizations across the country have begun taking steps to restore civility in their communities. In Maine, motivational speaker Craig Freshley launched a campaign called the “Make Shift Coffee House” — an event that moves from community to community where people with opposing political views can meet, learn from each other and have some good coffee.

In Arizona, the National Institute for Civil Discourse has launched a “Revive Civility” campaign, which empowers groups and individuals to become “Citizens for Reviving Civility.” The program offers guidance, resources and tools to help people combat incivility in their communities.

And Notaries have a rallying point around the Notary Public Code of Professional Responsibility, in which the first guiding principle dictates that Notaries “serve all of the public in an honest, fair and unbiased manner.”

In the end, the most important thing you can do is listen to and understand the people with opposing viewpoints, instead of debating them, judging them and trying to force them to have a different opinion.

“When people take time for reflection versus reaction, and when they truly take the time to listen to someone else’s point of view, they have a valuable new experience,” Lukensmeyer said. “On the basis of that new experience people are often willing to take the next step to tackle harder issues. It’s very, very inspiring to see this happen.”

Phillip Browne is Vice President of Communications for the National Notary Association.

Tips for Restoring Civility

While the methods of practicing civility aren’t new or revolutionary, they are largely being ignored today. However, experts say practicing these common suggestions will have a measurable impact on overcoming incivility.

• Seek out a variety of reliable news sources with different perspectives.

• Allow others to speak, and listen closely to build mutual understanding.

• Don’t blame your opponent for everything that goes wrong.

• Understand that people aren’t morally bankrupt if they hold an opposing viewpoint.

• Speak calmly and avoid shouting.

• Don’t try to win arguments at any cost.

• Avoid social media conflicts, and refrain from posting inflammatory content.

• Don’t lie or exaggerate to convince people of your point.

• Seek common ground in your conversations.

• Avoid rumors and gossip, and don’t perpetuate them.

• Be cordial and welcoming so it’s safe for the other person to have a dialogue with you.

• Don’t jump to conclusions or assume you know what another person’s thinking.

• Start or join a civility group in your workplace.

Source: National Institute for Civil Discourse, ICMA, Weber Shandwick, Powell Tate.

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Add your comment

Karri Hall

23 Oct 2017

Thank you for writing and sharing this message...very well said and timely. I pray that others will take the time to read this this and reflect!

mike smith

23 Oct 2017

The quote "But following the 2000 election — a similar controversial contest in which George W. Bush won the presidency — America’s reaction was much different. “People kept their discontent focused on Bush — a singular person,” Lukensmeyer said. “None of it was about your neighbors, friends or family like it is today"...that was true for Obama as well. It seems that those who had issues with that presidency were not hate mongers like the political left. The vast majority of the current civil discourse is comong from a media with an agenda and false narratives about many other fake issues. There is no room for supremacist or antifa radicals or constant lies about the POTUS.

Brenda Stone

24 Oct 2017

Thank you for this timely article.

Gary Benson

01 Jan 2018

We can thank Mr. Browne for his article and insight. However, the suggested list of Restoring Civility has to start in the heart (mind) of men. Nothing changes until our heart changes. That is not impossible but it takes an awareness that most of us are not willing to make. It's the awareness about ourselves. We are by nature - selfish, self-indulged, me first, lacking all direction from a Holy God, and bent on being the master of my life. Here is one awareness for you - You are not! You were not created to be a self determined individual, regardless of what the world around you says. Why is it that we are so easily pulled into the mud of societies morals and leave God out of our lives? You know that answer as well as me - self-determination, I can do it better than God.. Here is another reality - You can't! I leave with four sayings for your consideration. WE LIVE BY THE CHOICES WE MAKE. IF THINGS ARE GOING TO CHANGE, I HAVE TO CHANGE. IF THINGS ARE GOING TO GET BETTER, I HAVE TO GET BETTER. DOING MORE OF THE SAME, ONLY GETS YOU MORE OF THE SAME. Good advise for your personal life as well as your business life..

Donna Guient

02 Jan 2018

Thanks definitely to Mr. Browne for the article...but in addition, I feel that Mr. Gary Benson’s comment should be added to the article! PERFECTION!! I will definitely start with self reflection and share this article (along with Mr. Benson’s comment) with my family and friends. I’m inspired to challenge myself to help to increase awareness within my family and my circle of influence about the rapid decline of civility and challenge them all to self reflect - to look within their own hearts and minds in effort to get us all back on track. It is clear that we have taken a very wrong turn.


02 Jan 2018

Interesting article, but I think that the writer failed to address how civility needs to remain in the business world. People love to talk at a signing. I try to find a subject--ANY subject that is not related to the figures of their loan. It helps to put the signer(s) at ease. I have a LOT of hobbies and interests, I keep animals, I sew, I enjoy construction, I love to predict the weather, we live in the same community (usually), or how my town doesn't have what your (the signers) town has, and once people start talking about themselves you can agree with their points. I am VERY POLITICAL but I don't talk about politics or religion at a signing. Regarding politics, we live in representative republic bc our country's founders, the ones from the 13 British colonies who DIDN'T want to be ruled withOUT representation, not the other ones (like West FL and East FL, Quebec, who did), civil discourse, in letters to King George broke down and we had a war. We have Americans today who want us to change into a country with two rules of law, one for the wealthy AND powerful and one for the rest of us. Civility is a luxury when we fight to keep what we have. I do not share my beliefs with signers at a loan signing or other notarial signing bc these beliefs are personal. I DO share them when I am busy campaigning for a local candidate at such functions. There is a difference that the article missed.


02 Jan 2018

Historically America HAS been this way before, hatred of "the other" is as old as America. But it has also often led to hard fought change. The vote for women, the voting rights act, civil rights, LGBT rights all came about because of the demand for equality and respect. I grew up in a time and a place where civility and manners were taught and expected. I taught the same to my own children. I still expect civility. Like Betty above, when working I keep my political and religious view to myself, and I appreciate others who do the same. Two rules I try hard to live by: the Golden Rule of do unto others as you would have done, and "be the change you wish to see in the world". Thank you for a great and much needed article.

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