Our reputation for civility
Tomorrow is the anniversary of the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, Congresswoman from Arizona. And let’s not forget the unnecessary killings of six people including a young 9 year old. Many were also hurt, including our nation’s reputation.
At Weber Shandwick, we started studying civility in June 2010 with a follow up in 2011. We realized that civil discourse was taking a turn for the worse in 2010 and we set out to better understand how the American public felt about this . We did not of course realize what was to come in the Arizona killing spree but we definitely knew that America’s reputation for civility was heading in the wrong direction.
Our research with Powell Tate and KRC Research on civility was breakthrough for a pr firm. The coverage has been consistently high. There are approximately 10 million mentions of civility when I last searched.
The idea came to me when I was at the Council of PR Firms’ annual event in October 2009. David Gergen, the political commentator and advisor to presidents, was a guest speaker and he was talking about how President Obama had mentioned how he had to figure out a way to get people interested in civility. The light bulb went on in my head and I could not let it go. Why not ask Americans what they thought of the tone of our national discourse in politics, schools, on television, online and in sports? How had the American public square become so unruly and what did Americans think they could do about it? And so we started the research. I am proud that Weber Shandwick added to the national conversation in a thoughtful and meaningful way. In my opinion, we should make it our business to teach people what is civil and uncivil behavior. There needs to be a national public education program to better inform people what the limits are.
In 2011 when we did the last survey, Americans expected civility to erode even further. Whereas more than one-third (39%) expected things to turn less civil when surveyed in 2010, more than one out of two Americans — 55% — expected a lack of civility to become the norm in 2011. And incivility did become the norm, not just in politics but in cyberbullying, school bullying and workplace bullying. I could not even guess what people think now as we enter the political cycle. We will be asking again as the incivility season (oops I meant silliness season) begins again.
At least tomorrow, on the one year anniversary of the Arizona tragedy, we can hold our tongues and keep our clicks at bay and be civil to our neighbors. The Arizona tragedy was not really due to incivility but due to the mental illness of a lone shooter. But it did touch the nation’s nerve and made us all think twice about the widening of our civility deficit.