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For the sake of Michigan’s future, can we be more civil, please?

Flickr/Martha Soukup

The Next Idea

Living in Michigan, we experience incivility on a daily basis, from simply driving down pot-hole filled roads to attending public meetings to logging into our social media accounts. This has to change, and not just so our Facebook feeds can feel more like a cocktail party -- though that’s not a bad place to start.

For Michigan’s diverse regions to experience economic growth, they must include civility in conversations about politics, religion, race and class in order to maximize each other’s strengths to benefit everyone.

As most experts will tell you, one of the keys to discovering the newest and best innovations is through collaboration. In fact, just about every tech incubator in the country has been built with this in mind. If we truly want to return to the innovative, dynamic economy that Michigan was once known for, we must pay more attention to public civility.

In this polarized climate, I realize this is much easier said than done, but that just means it is even more imperative that we address the growing incivility in Michigan now. Like our roads, the longer we wait to fix it, the more costly it will be.

Origins of recent incivility

Michigan’s polarized political climate mirrors what is happening throughout the United States. At the federal level, we have seen Congress become less productive and more ill-mannered -- a trend that continues at the state and local government levels, with predictably weak results.

One reason is that our society’s growing inequity continues to subvert democratic processes. Rather than focusing on the best ideas for helping those who need it the most, public dialogue is often undermined by feelings of resentment and personal attacks. Economic disparity leaves citizens – rich, poor, and in-between -- feeling disenfranchised from the conversation, which increases frustration and the potential for further uncivil acts.

Oversimplification is another challenge. We often try to solve complex issues with solutions that make for great sound bytes but fail to comprehend the depth of the problems. Not surprisingly, these half-baked solutions often do not achieve the transformative change that we need. As they pile up, their cumulative impotence deters more people from engaging with each other to find the best solutions. Why bother, if our leaders are only looking for band-aids instead of cures?

The internet and media, however, have done the most to nourish this growing incivility. Citizens can now freely post their opinions online, no matter how hostile. Our Facebook and Twitter feeds are littered with virtual soap boxes on which people react to and spread the latest incivilities in the media.

It is even more imperative that we address the growing incivility in Michigan now. Like our roads, the longer we wait to fix it, the more costly it will be.

With social media lending everyone a microphone, the risk of entering the public dialogue is negligible, and it shows in comment sections littered with hatred and threats. This is all permitted, and should be, under the First Amendment, but does that make it any more civil?

So what’s the Next Idea?

There are a number of options, both formal and informal, for shoring up the civil character of Michigan’s public discourse:

  • Join the effort:  The Michigan State University Center for Community and Economic Development is developing a virtual network of engaged citizens to continue a dialogue on civility throughout Michigan. This voluntary group is open to the public and will work together to brainstorm probable next steps to foster positive, constructive conversations throughout the state.
  •  Increase collaboration throughout your community: By inspiring collective action, such as open communication, being collaborative and inclusive, and sharing mutual respect,a more supportive environment can be created. Our local leaders should try giving more responsibility to the community to brainstorm solutions to Michigan’s pressing issues. For example, the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission has hosted a series of charrettes focused on the Michigan Avenue/Grand River Avenue corridor. Open to the public, these in-depth engagement opportunities allow community members, city planners, sustainability experts, and others to collaborate on solutions to improve a highly-used stretch of land.

There are also more informal things we can do. Here are two:

  •  Start a civil dialogue: Engaging in a dialogue is different than engaging in a normal discussion. It involves more listening, asking others for their opinions without attacking them, and opening one’s mind to new perspectives and solutions. In these dialogues, citizens can share their ideas to create a renewed sense of common purpose and to strengthen relationships with each other.
  • Remember the “Golden Rule”: Treat others how you want to be treated. The Golden Rule has been instilled in our brains for generations, yet not enough of us practice it in our daily lives. It is based on mutual reciprocity and involves empathizing with others. Treating others with respect and kindness will help decrease incivility in our communities.

There are no doubt costs to embracing civility. We have to let go of strongly-held beliefs. We have to turn away from hubris and instead compromise in ways that are personally unacceptable. We must accept our own weaknesses. 
It won’t be easy, but it is worth trying. A sense of ineffectiveness, hopelessness, and apathy is spreading through the great communities across our state. If the level of incivility continues at its current rate, a healthy civic culture could be denied for Michigan’s next generation. Not only that, but without significant collaboration, we are likely to miss out on the best new ideas that could help make this state a better place to live for everyone. 

Emily Bankis the author of a white paper from Michigan State University's Center for for Community and Economic Development entitled: "Cultivating a Civil Society in an Era of Incivility." Emily is also president of MSU's Council of Graduate Students.

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