‘Restoring’ Civility or Reinventing It? Why Civility Without Communication Isn’t Civil at All

By David Murray

As the author of a new book, An Effort to Understand: Hearing Ourselves (and One Another) in a Nation Cracked in Half, naturally I’m enthusiastic about the focus of the PRSSA’s 2021 Bateman Compeition: “Modeling Civility: How Public Relations Professionals Can Restore Quality, Integrity and Inclusiveness to Public Discourse.”

I’m even more pleased to read in the competition brief that “embracing civility as a platform is not about promoting politeness or stifling disagreement.”

But what is it about, exactly? I’ve been thinking about that a lot, as I’m sure you have.

I have some strong feelings about civility. In my book, I write:

  • Civility, all by itself, never achieved one good thing.
  • Civility is a cold civil war.
  • Civility is a hiss.
  • Civility is a cowardly mutter, “I bet you’re a racist.”
  • Civility is the new “tolerance policy.”
  • Civility is, I think you’re an idiot but I’m not going to tell you.
  • Civility is, I think you’re an idiot but I’m not going to tell you, but I will shake my head behind your back.
  • And I will tell the next person I see who knows you.
  • And I will probably tell you when you finally go too far, and I’ve decided enough is enough (or I’ve had too much to drink).
  • Civility is, “It’s you and people like you who are ruining this country! Excuse me, I meant to say, ‘Pass the salt.’”
  • Civility is staying together for the kids (who are dying from the tension in the house).
  • Civility all by itself is I hate you, and I’ll never understand you.

Civility for its own sake is not how we want to live in a place we call the United States of America. That kind of surface civility is a membrane stretched over a canyon, and it’s simply not viable for a society that needs to find sufficient public consensus to solve major problems in public health, the economy, the environment, and in civics itself.

What we need is a much more robust and imaginative definition of civility—a communicator’s definition. As I write: Civil communication, on the other hand, is: I might be wrong. I might be blind in one eye or deaf in one ear. There’s something I might be missing. Even though you voted for an idiot, I just saw something in you that I deeply admire. We are all brothers and sisters—even the guy I saw on the street the other day wearing a cowboy hat and those weird running shoes with the toes. …

As a younger man, I thought of communication as using words to convince others of my point of view in all of its unique subtlety and wisdom, and so I felt obligated (and exhilarated!) to contribute my unique argument to every human tussle I came across, including the ones I started myself. The more I think of communication as the life I live, the words I write and speak seem less important as a proportion of all the things I do, and all the things I never do—in public, and in private, too.

In other words, “modeling civility,” as the Bateman brief says.

The Bateman brief challenges PRSSA competitors to help the PRSA “lead a larger national conversation about the need to reverse the corrosion of civility in American life and bring our collective expertise, insight and influence to bear on fostering more effective and inclusive civil discourse in all corners of society.”

I’d only encourage the winning program to focus less on the need to “reverse the corrosion” of an unreliably remembered and unequally appreciated civility of a vaguely defined yesteryear.

I think it’s much more useful to describe a kind of civility we’ve never seen practiced broadly across our society—a deeper, more challenging civility that involves the kind of work communicators are trained to do.

As I conclude: Communication requires listening as much as it requires speaking. And deep listening. And constant listening. And careful listening. And imaginative listening. And repeated listening. And in our own time, if we are going to have a society that is worth living in, we must learn to listen, to hear, to sense with the tiny cilia of our ears and the tenderest membranes of our hearts—not just the words of our friends and family, coworkers and leaders, but their intent—their deepest intent, and emotional source. With the assumption, so hard to sustain in the daily madness of American life, that the other person came by her views as honestly (or maybe as dishonestly) as you came to yours. And with the belief that with an effort, you can understand.

That’s the kind of work it takes a communicator to do.

And if thousands of us model it, we will change the world.

Why every communicator should participate in the March 26 conference (and how everyone can afford to) 

Launched in conjunction with David Murray’s new book An Effort to Understand, this March 26 virtual event is “for people who seek more responsible rhetoric in politics, at work and at home—in a society cracked in half.” And for communicators who want to use their skills to make the world better.

If that’s you, David Murray and the brilliant speakers at this conference want you there, to learn together your colleagues, about how to use rhetoric for good (and avoid using it, even unwittingly, for ill) … what communicators and organizations improve civility discourse and drive social change … and how to bring your whole soul to your communication job—and do a better job, because of it.

The event is priced to include everyone: If your employer can cover your registration, that’s $395; if you need to pay as an individual, that’s just $95. And if you can’t pay, write to info@vsotd.com and ask for a free pass.

David Murray heads the global Professional Speechwriters Association and comments daily on communication issues on his popular blog “Writing Boots.” He is an award-winning journalist and is editor and publisher of Vital Speeches of the Day, one of the world’s longest continuously published magazines.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *