Growing Incivility in America

The 2020 election and the recent political chaos in Congress have revealed a rising state of incivility in politics, reflected in mainstream and social media and public behavior.

While Barack Obama was perhaps the first social media president of the United States, few have used the platform with such veracity and toxicity as Donald Trump. Indeed, so toxic was his presence that Twitter famously banned him in 2021 (but then was reinstated by Elon Musk). Research from Stanford University highlights how Trump’s presidency coincided with a significant increase in online incivility by elected officials.

The researchers found that there was a 23% increase in online incivility from the start of the Obama administration to 2019. What’s more, the more inflammatory the tweet, the more engaging it appeared to be when measured by likes and retweets.

The study is among the first to focus on instances of incivility on the platform over some time, and the authors are at pains to point out that the higher engagement generated by such tweets is not a good thing, not least because such engagement should not be assumed to mean people approve of the message.

“It’s likely that uncivil tweets gain large numbers of likes because they are retweeted so much and thus reach many more people,” the researchers say. “Our research suggests that the average person’s view of uncivil tweets is very different — likely much more negative — than what might be gleaned from the ‘likes’ count.”

This message doesn’t appear to get through to the politicians themselves, however, who seem to view engagement as a sign to produce more rude and incendiary tweets.

Across the board

While Trump was an incendiary persona in social media, the analysis of around 1.3 million tweets shared by members of Congress found that incivility was on the rise across the political spectrum. Indeed, the biggest rise appeared among liberal Democrats, but the researchers believe this could be partly in response to the tweets made by Trump himself, with reactions to the former President accounting for much of the rise in incivility on the platform.

The researchers state that despite the evident harm the use of uncivil language can cause, it can also help politicians draw attention to key issues, while also spurring supporters into action and even helping to raise money.

As such, they do not attempt to pass judgment on whether the trend is positive or negative but do plan to study whether this general rise in political toxicity also extends into other sources, such as the Congressional record.

“Crude, rude and obnoxious behavior has replaced good manners and it hurts our politics and culture.” A U.S. News & World Report came out with an article on “The American Uncivil Wars” that confronts the amazingly rude state of affairs in which young Americans are in today and concluded incivility is one of the greatest problems that America is faced with.

Nowhere is the problem of incivility more prominent than in politics with political discourse between candidates degenerating into attack ads and worse. The NAACP published a report called “Tea Party Nationalism,” exposing what it calls links between various Tea Party organizations and racist hate groups in the United States, such as white-supremacist groups, anti-immigrant organizations and militias. That connection has continued under the MAGA movement and far-right groups. The NAACP report, which counts among its authors, Leonard Zeskind, one of the country’s foremost scholars of white nationalism, says the right-wing portion of the Republican Party has become a site for recruitment by white supremacists and others. There has been a significant increase in the number of people becoming active members of racist white nationalist or neo-Nazi groups, which make little effort to suppress their incivility.

Historians of fascism such as Timothy Snyder and Robert O. Paxton have argued that Trump is not comparable to Hitler, but that there are sufficient similarities between them to warrant some concerns about surviving elements of a totalitarian past crystalizing into new forms in the United States. Paxton, in particular, argues that the Trump regime is closer to a plutocracy than to fascism. If Trump has his way, traditional state power will be replaced by the rule of major corporations and the financial elite, particularly ones that are loyal to him personally. We have already seen that the social cleansing and state violence inherent in totalitarianism has been amplified under Trump.

Both Hannah Arendt and Sheldon Wolin, the great historians of totalitarianism, argued that the dangerous conditions that produce totalitarianism are still with us. Wolin, in particular, insisted (in his book Democracy Incorporated) that the United States was evolving into an authoritarian society.

Incivility and Civility Defined

Civility is defined as formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech. Synonyms are courtesy, good manners, consideration, respect, and graciousness. It is a Latin word that originated in 509 BCE when Romans founded their republic, and kings were driven from the city. Civility appeared over time from the word civis, which means citizen, that is, only men with property. It matured into civitas, meaning the rights and duties of citizenship, and then civilitas appeared, meaning the art and science of citizenship.

The rights of citizenship meant that citizens met in an assembly where they voted for their leaders. It also meant the right to be governed under laws that they voted for and not subject to the whims of despots. Their duties were clear–serving with other citizens in centuries, cohorts, and legions, and providing for their equipment–shields, swords, javelins, and helmets.

The Romans, in creating an empire that expanded around the world put great emphasis on civic virtue. The Romans believed in honest debate, civility in the streets and treating adversaries with respect, even if defeating them in battle. Historians looking at the fall of the Roman Empire have tried to find reasons why the great Empire failed. Many see the loss of civil society as a major reason for the fall of the Romans. People stopped treating each other with respect. The Empire itself stopped treating those they conquered with respect. What was once a society of mutual respect for all became a society of overconfidence of complacency. The very values that made the Roman Empire great were the very values that were left behind.

The English word civility comes from the French word civilité. The Norman and Plantagenet kings were French. The period was the twelfth to the fifteenth century. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II’s wife and mother of Richard the Lion Heart and King John, brought civility to the English. But the word had changed. Citizens and the Republic were missing and Europe now had lords and vassals. Civility became the proper conduct between lords and free men who served them– deference, cooperation, service, reciprocal rights and duties, and proper speech and dress. Civility became a social, political, that is, courtly word.

Magna Carta was an agreement between the king and his vassals. Then during the Renaissance, the Age of Science, and the Enlightenment–a period of three hundred years–the understanding of civility reached new levels. The Renaissance was an age of humanism where society focused on broad human and humanistic concerns. Being human and human-hearted, creating an elevated sense of humanity, and celebrating human achievements became the central focus of communities in both a social and civil way. Republican civility reappeared and flourished in the Italian city-states and republics. The communes throughout Europe had special civic and economical privileges. The educated gentleman was characterized as:

At this time, wisdom developed over the importance of civility. A Latin phrase was used–civilitas. The phrase meant that the culture of civility was the anchor of our humanity. The practice of civility holds us to our human heartedness, the essence of our humanity. It meant humans acting their best, their most noble selves, acting civilized. The late eighteenth century experienced the American Revolution and the French Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. All of these were part of a wider movement that demanded rights for everyone grounded in the rights of citizenship.

Presidential democracy and parliamentary democracy appeared in the nineteenth century and the franchise for women was won in the twentieth. The greatest achievement of the twentieth century was the UN’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Add to these magnificent achievements The Discovery of the Child, and the idea of civility seemed complete:

Characteristics of Civility and Incivility



· Thinking before speaking.

· Using respectful and “non-violent” language.

· Focus on facts rather than beliefs and opinions.

· Focus on the common good rather than individual agendas.

· Disagreeing with others respectfully.

· An openness to others without hostility.

· Respectfulness of diverse views and groups.

· A spirit of collegiality.

· Offering productive and corrective feedback to those who behave in demeaning, insulting, disrespectful, and discriminatory ways.

· Being physically courteous and helpful to others.

· Giving positive feedback to others regarding their civil behaviours.

Why is Civility So Important?

Jim Taylor, a psychologist at the University of San Francisco, writing in the Huffington Post contends that “Civility is about something far more important than how people comport themselves with others. Rather, civility is an expression of a fundamental understanding and respect for the laws, rules, and norms (written and implicit) that guide its citizens in understanding what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. For a society to function, people must be willing to accept those strictures. Though still in the distance, the loss of civility is a step toward anarchy, where anything goes; you can say or do anything, regardless of the consequences.”

Civility is the action of working together productively to reach a common goal, and often with beneficent purposes. Some definitions conflate civility with politeness, which suggests disengaging with others so as not to offend (“roll over and play dead”. The notion of positively constructive civility suggests robust, even passionate, engagement framed in respect of differing views.

Community, choices, conscience, and character are all elements directly related to civility. Civility is more than just having manners because it involves developing a civil attitude and civil responsibility. Civility often forms more meaningful friendships and relationships, with an underlying tone of civic duty to help more than the sum of its whole.

The Causes of Incivility

There are several interrelated social, economic and psychological causes for incivility. Here are a few:

· External threats (real or imagined) create fear. The most obvious example is the COVID-19 pandemic but could include the perceived threats of immigrants, criminals/terrorists, and natural disasters.

· Economic uncertainty. Many Americans are stressed these days, given the economic situation and uncertainties about the future. They’re concerned about their jobs and families; they’re working longer and harder than ever or not at all, and they are not sure when things will get better.

· The example set by political and business leaders. When our leaders exhibit uncivil behavior, it gives them a license for others to do the same.

· Economic inequality. Inequality is increasing in the U.S. to unheard-of levels, where the 1% are accruing most of the benefits of the booming economy, at the expense of the poor and middle classes.

· The cult of individualism and lack of restraint — “I’ll do it my way.” When we care little about what others think of us, we think little of them. We feel less bound by respect and restraint. The cult of individualism, more prominent in the U.S. than anywhere else, has reinforced the beliefs that an individual’s misfortune is their fault, and that society doesn’t have an obligation to ensure basic social welfare for all its citizens.

· Inflated self-worth: Self-absorbed People don’t value others except as a means to fulfill needs and desires.

· Low self-worth. Insecure people may become defensive and hostile.

· Materialism — The quest for money and possessions to be happier often is futile and frustrating, resulting in less kindness to others.

· Injustice — People who perceive they have been treated unfairly can become demoralized, depressed, indignant or outraged. The injustice may be a feeling of envy — it’s unfair that you are smarter, better looking, wealthier than I am.

· The anonymity of social media, where people feel they have the license to be uncivil and hide behind the curtain of anonymity.

· Disintegration of community and increase in isolation. Add to that the increasing phenomena of loneliness and depression in the US and you have a double whammy.

The University of Maryland President’s Forum on Incivility

I had the opportunity to be the keynote speaker on a special President’s Forum on Incivility as a positive initiative at the University of Maryland because the University was concerned about issues of incivility and bullying on campus. In my talk, I outlined the research on incivility, excerpts of which follow.

Has economic instability and the fear of terrorism being a catalyst for growing incivility in America? Just look at our TV shows — the superficial pettiness and backstabbing of Orange County or Vancouver housewives, New Jersey shore grotesques, bullying chefs, rude and disrespectful contest judges, talk show hosts, news program hosts, and politicians.

Repeated public opinion polls have voiced the concern of Americans over the erosion of civility in government, business, media and social media. The most poll by Weber Shandwick reported that 65% of Americans say the lack of civility is a major problem that has worsened during the financial crisis and recession. What’s even more distressing is that nearly 50% of those surveyed said they were withdrawing from the basic tenants of democracy — government and politics — because of incivility and bullying.

The second survey of Civility in America was conducted by KRC Research using an online survey of 1,000 U.S. adults. Civility in America results fall into several key areas in this report — civility in politics, education, the workplace, the Internet and the marketplace. Most Americans report they have been victims of incivility (86%). Their most common encounters with rude or disrespectful behavior come while driving (72%) or shopping (65%). Americans also admit to perpetrating incivility — approximately six in 10 (59%) Americans acknowledge that they have been uncivil.

Uncivil behavior is also increasingly showing up in our classrooms, not just at work. Half of the American parents (50%) report that their children have experienced incivility at school and nearly half of Americans twenty years and older (45%) say that they’d be afraid to be teenagers today because of incivility’s frequent occurrence. One in 10 (11%) parents report that they have sent children to a different school due to problems with incivility.

With incivility, a growing problem in America, the risk of companies losing business over it is becoming more of a reality. Approximately seven in 10 Americans (69%) have either stopped buying from a company or have re-evaluated their opinions of a company because someone from that company was uncivil in their interaction. Further, nearly six in 10 (58%) have advised friends, family or co-workers not to buy certain products because of uncivil, rude or disrespectful behavior from the company or its representatives. All of these reported buying behaviors have significantly increased since one year ago.

According to a survey by Zogby International, almost 50% of U.S. workers report they have experienced or witnessed some kind of bullying — verbal abuse, insults, threats, screaming, sarcasm or ostracism. One study by John Medina showed that workers stressed by bullying performed 50% worse on cognitive tests. Other studies estimate the financial costs of bullying at more than $200 billion per year. Cyberbullying — when someone is threatened, harassed or embarrassed by another using the Internet — is of great concern to Americans today. Nearly seven in 10 Americans — 69% — report that cyberbullying is getting worse. An equally large number (72%) worry about children being cyberbullied. The National Crime Prevention Council recently reported that a sizeable 58% of fourth to eighth-graders have had mean things said to them.

Pier M. Forni, an award-winning professor of Italian Literature and founder of The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude says, “In today’s America, incivility is on prominent display: in the schools, where bullying is pervasive; in the workplace, where an increasing number are more stressed out by coworkers than their jobs; on the roads, where road remains and kills; in politics, where strident intolerance takes the place of earnest dialogue; and on the web, where many check their inhibitions at the digital door.”

Forni says the onslaught of rude, bullying and uncivil behavior — intensified by the 24/7 reach of the Internet and social networking sites such as Twitter — adds to the stress people are already feeling and can translate into real and very tragic consequences.

Forni says feelings of insecurity only exacerbate the problem. “When we are insecure or not sure of ourselves for whatever reason because the economy is bad, or we think we are going to lose our jobs … very often we shift the burden of that insecurity upon others in the form of hostility,” he says. “It is the kick-the-dog syndrome. You make an innocent pay for how badly you feel to find some kind of relief.”

Incivility and bullying behavior is also often a precursor to physical violence, says Forni. According to the Department of Labor, there are about 1.8 million acts of physical violence in the American workplace in any given year.

“How in the world can we stop bullying in schools, in the workplace, in politics, when it is so close to our national character right now?” asks Dr. Gary Namie, a psychologist and cofounder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, a Washington state–based nonprofit.

Writing in the Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, Roddey Reid, a professor of cultural studies at the University of California contends, “Although a universal problem, bullying enjoys a virulence and prevalence in contemporary U.S. culture virtually unmatched anywhere else in terms of its reach, depth, and legitimacy. Unlike in many European nations and Canada it is not illegal in the U.S.”

Reid argues that Americans should not be surprised at the levels of incivility. It’s not like there wasn’t ample warning. “So much macho bluster. Strutting around, talking tough. But following close behind came the actions: fire-bombings of abortion clinics, serial capital executions, gay bashings — not to mention “three-strikes” laws and mandatory sentencing that send citizens off to long prison terms for petty drug offences, tripling the U.S. prison population within twenty years. Next to come in for brutal treatment were the schools and workplaces: from the presence of police in hallways and zero-tolerance drug tests to factory closings and the downsizing of middle-management to the cutting and privatization of public services and government programs. Even the Post Office became a ‘profit centre of excellence’ meant to compete with private sector enterprises; it also became a centre of workplace violence and shootings,” Reid says.

So it is today, where bullying behavior is encouraged and rewarded in a range of business enterprises. The style itself is applauded in boardrooms and business publications like Business Week, as “tough,” “no-nonsense,” and “hard as nails.” When you see these code words, you know you’re dealing with the bully boss — thanks to the admiration in which bully management is held in American business and academic gurus who perpetuate the techniques.”

Some of our captains of industry, supposed models of leadership, are increasingly engaging in uncivil behavior. Witness Is smack-talking Oracle co-founder and CEO Larry Ellison called the HP board “idiots” for firing Mark Hurd, and ridiculing SAP co-founder Hass Plattner’s “wild Einstein hair” in an email to the Wall Street Journal or even dissing Bill Gates as not being so smart, as reported by Brad Stone and Aaron Ricadela, writing in Bloomsberg BusinessWeek.

Little is said in the U.S. media or public discussion about how the continuing obsession with short-term profits and the awarding of exorbitant executive pay lay the foundation for a surge in abusive behavior in the workplace, to begin with, let alone how the introduction of best practices of flexible employment, outsourcing of traditional company tasks, and the recourse to workers reclassified as “independent contractors” have opened the door to “management by terror” Reid contends. These changes compounded worker vulnerability in those workplaces already left to the tender mercies of “at-will employment,” a workplace regime dating from the 19th century and unique to the U.S.

Research conducted by Wayne Hochwarter and Samantha Englehardt at Florida State University concluded that “employer-employee relations are at one of the lowest points in history,” with a significant decline in basic civility.

According to a 2008 study published in the Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, allegiance to many old public virtues such as the Bill of Rights, the Geneva Convention and the rule of domestic and international law is now commonly mocked or dismissed as quaint by significant people in power and persuasion.

In The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends On It, well-known author Os Guinness argues that civility needs to be rebuilt in western societies like the U.S. if they are to survive: “Civility must truly be restored. It is not to be confused with niceness and mere etiquette or dismissed as squeamishness about differences. It is a tough, robust, substantive concept… and a manner of conduct that will be decisive for the future of the American republic”.

Jim Taylor, a psychologist at the University of San Francisco, writing in the Huffington Post, contends that “Civility is about something far more important than how people comport themselves with others. Rather, civility is an expression of a fundamental understanding and respect for the laws, rules, and norms (written and implicit) that guide its citizens in understanding what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. For a society to function, people must be willing to accept those strictures. Though still in the distance, the loss of civility is a step toward anarchy, where anything goes; you can say or do anything, regardless of the consequences.”

So what is to be done about incivility? Forni, a co-founder of the Civility Project, defines the basics of civility as the Three R’s: Respect, Restraint and Responsibility. These fundamental components of civility were echoed strongly in our research. When Americans were asked to define “civility,” the words “respect” and “treating others as you would want to be treated,” predominated.

Civil communication begins early. The more that incivility infiltrates our culture, the more we may become dangerously indifferent to its existence and pass it down to the next generation. Many Americans agree that there should be civility training at school and work. Perhaps a national public education program starting in the schools, cities and public squares across America could turn the tide on incivility and help restore respect and pride as a country.

“A national public education campaign endorsed by political leaders, schools, PTAs and corporate America and distributed through the media might be an important first step towards bringing civility back to our shores,” argues Jack Leslie, Chairman of Weber Shandwick.

A second step may have to be legislation that proscribes incivility. In the U.S., 20 states are exploring legislation that would put bullying on the legal radar screen. In Canada, the provinces of Ontario, Saskatchewan and Quebec have passed legislation that addresses workplace bullying, although both countries are far behind some European nations and New Zealand.

Incivility Online

There is growing evidence that “online incivility” is spreading across social networking sites (SNS) making them a potentially hostile environment for users. The Pew Research Center (PRC) has documented the rising incidence of incivility in SNS-based interactions: for example, 73% of online adults have seen someone being harassed in some way in SNS, and 40% have personally experienced it. Also, 92% of Internet users agreed that SNS-mediated interaction allows people to be more rude and aggressive, compared with their offline experiences.

“Trolls are portrayed as aberrational and antithetical to how normal people converse with each other. And that could not be further from the truth,” says Whitney Phillips, a literature professor at Mercer University and the author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. “These are mostly normal people who do things that seem fun at the time that have huge implications. You want to say this is the bad guys, but it’s a problem of us.”

Cell phones are another target for incivility researchers. While most users no longer feel the need to shout into their phones, they may be so wrapped up “in their own little bubbles” that they don’t realize they’re blocking a sidewalk or holding up a line, says psychologist Veronica V. Galván.

A 2014 study published in the psychology journal Personality and Individual Differences found that approximately 25% of Internet users who self-identified as trolls scored extremely high in the dark tetrad of personality narcissism.

The News Media Fans the Flames of Incivility

Many mainstream media outlets have changed from reporting factual news and honest commentary to either tools of the government or political parties, reporting lies and false information. FOX News has been an example. Add to that the fact that a large percentage of the American public receives their news from unverified reports on Facebook, and the results can fuel incivility.

Incivility in the Workplace

Christine Porath, a professor of business at Georgetown University who studies and focuses on making the workplace a more civil place and author of a new book, and her colleague, Christine Pearson conducted a study on incivility in the workplace and its effects.

“And what we found is that incivility made people less motivated: 66% cut back work efforts, 80% lost time worrying about what happened, and 12% left their job,” said Porath in her TED Talk titled “Why being respectful to your coworkers is good for business.”

Final Thoughts

So it’s clear that incivility in its various forms is tearing at the fabric of American society and the democratic system. A concerted effort by leaders and the general public to emphasize the importance of civility as not just being polite or nice, but seeing it as a cornerstone of a healthy democracy is sorely needed.



Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others

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Ray Williams

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others