I can't recall how I came to notice the Ohio Civility Project's existence, but I'm disappointed to say that it seems as though it's received extremely little attention. Here's a press release from the University of Akron, one of the entities in the collaborative effort, and you can read the materials they've produced so far here.)
As a taxpayer, a frequent writer of letters to the editor, blog posts and opeds and a local elected official, there's no doubt in my mind that this topic deserves the time and effort of the collaborators - The University of Akron's Ray C. Bliss Institute for Applied Politics, the University of Mount Union's Regula Center for Public Service and Cleveland State University's Levin College of Urban Affairs. And some of the results actually surprised me at first, though not for long (the general public's view of how little they think they contribute to the problem surprised me, in particular).
Although their work includes a section that details the costs to us when we do not deploy decorum, things like an erosion of trust both between electeds and between electeds and constituents, there is something far fiercer that I've experienced in my time as a council member: suppression or intimidation via an expectation of being civil.
The group mentions how people should be able to debate via civil discourse. We should be able to hold and assert extreme and extremely different opinions, without losing it at one another. But my experience has also indicated that at times, residents and public officials will use the cover of civility as a way to keep dissent from coming to the surface.
One reason I attended law school and social work school was to learn problem-solving skills. That includes understanding how to make the case for a position so that people can hear it. When we are not civil, the Ohio Civility Project indicates, we can't hear each other and therefore we can't solve problems. That's a huge issue that should be fixed.
My one caution to the group would be that they be sure that in instituting the recommendations they've outlined (create standards by which people should engage and then measure and reveal how people are abiding or not abiding by those standards), they keep an eye on the extent to which the standards do not, as a byproduct, stifle debate.
To be sure that doesn't happen, I'd suggest that Debate 101 with role playing and the whole nine yards be used to demonstrate how it can be done and should be done, so that we all get things done.
Civility - what's it look like to you and what are you willing to do to get it?
Copyright © 2011 Jill Miller Zimon; available under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.
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