Civility is Happening. What is it Accomplishing?

Sep 25, 2017

Let’s say you’re involved in a conversation on the effectiveness of the U.S. healthcare system, and know your opinions are not consistent with the entire group’s. If you were to be attentive, inclusive, acknowledge others and listen you’d be on your way toward exercising all tenets of civility established by the nonprofit Be Civil, Be Heard. There are 10 total principals.  

“So you’ll notice the first four are about us not speaking,” says Dr. Elizabeth Dudash-Buskirk is a communications professor at Missouri State University and curator for the Springfield-based organization.

Be Civil, Be Heard signs can be found affixed to downtown Springfield light poles. Its 10 tenets of civility have been adopted by Springfield City Council, among other local groups.
Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU

The other six tenets are, “Respecting others views, speaking with courage, acting with compassion, giving and accepting constructive feedback, treating our environment with respect and being accountable when we are uncivil or when there’s a problem that we need to solve,” she says.

BCBH launched about eight years ago, and its 10 tenets have been endorsed by Springfield City Council and other local groups. Today, banners bearing the Be Civil, Be Heard logo can be seen affixed to downtown light poles. But the project became dormant through the years, according to Dudash-Buskirk. Motivated by a divisive presidential election season, she took over the nonprofit last fall to expand its services.  

“We do projects where we believe we’re giving platforms or opportunities or space for people to speak.”

That means all opinions are welcome, for which the organization has been criticized.  

“How can you say it’s civil to allow all voices [they ask]? To that I s ay it’s uncivil to not allow all voices.”

Sponsored meetings include Table Top Talks; which bring small groups together to discuss problems or generate ideas, and Soup and Civility; for sustenance, conversation and building awareness. There are also larger gatherings like debates.

In March, some 300 spectators watched representatives from the group Springfield Freethinkers and local pastors debate if religion plays a role in happiness.

At these BCBH sponsored events, ones it deems “Civilly Certified,” audience members are informed of and asked to follow the 10 tenets when asking questions or sharing opinions on the topic. Dudash-Buskirk says the same procedure was followed during a debate it sponsored last year between candidates for Missouri’s 7th congressional district.

MSU professor Dr. Elizabeth Dudash-Buskirk is a also curator for the Springfield nonprofit Be Civil, Be Heard.
Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU

“If they did not abide by those 10 tenets when they spoke then they would be asked to relinquish the microphone at their time to speak and wait at the end of the line until they could speak again. Of course we had nobody violate any of the tenets.”

It ensures protection, she says, for all in the room to speak freely and safely.

All things tend to be political, she says, but BCBH doesn’t get involved in issues that are mainly affiliated with one political party.

It’s hard to quantify the effectiveness of civility, Dudash-Buskirk says, but she can at least gauge if and how it’s being implemented. A youth group, which we’ll report on later this week, has incorporated the 10 tenets into its curriculum, for example.

“So that was one test. The second test was a complaint - the complaint that the protests and rallies for [President] Donald Trump did not get enough media coverage because there wasn’t enough violence. I am so grateful for that complaint.”

BCBH didn’t help in organizing either of the demonstrations on Aug. 30 – one supportive and one critical of the president as he visited the city to talk tax reform. The peaceful demonstrations in Springfield came less than three weeks after a more controversial subject brought hate groups to Charlottesville, Virginia, where protests turned violent. Nonetheless, Dudask-Buskirk says the local community should be proud of the civility it showed during Trump’s visit and has consistently displayed at a time when violent altercations that don’t change policy may get more attention.

“When does the media really go cover a protest? It’s if there’s some violence,” says Zack Exley, a former senior advisor to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign from southern Missouri who now runs the video project Left Right Forward, which attempts to address issues in a way that reach beyond party lines.

“And then we say ‘Civility is gone’ because these tiny numbers of people are fighting in the streets. The real tragedy there is that that show of a few people from the fringe left and the fringe right fighting in the streets is taking our attention away and it is actually making us forget where the real action is in our good old fashioned democracy and public discourse.”

There’s normal, healthy tension and disagreement among citizens, he says. But media focus on divisive actions by small groups or individuals creates the illusion that civility is breaking down. That risks, he says, people withdrawing from casting votes, which is one of the biggest ways to enact change.    

“And they’re being driven away from good old fashioned democracy to focus more on going out and yelling at somebody; whether that is at a protest or on Reddit or some other website,” he says.

Exley admits the democratic process isn’t perfect, but feels our country’s way of governance is stronger than it’s ever been before.

Zack Exley, a southern Missouri citizen who runs the video project Left Right Forward.
Credit Used with permission

“If there needs to be a protest there should be a protest – that’s a part of democracy. But what we’ve done here over hundreds of years and really thousands if you go back to all of our traditions, is we’ve devised a system where we can make decisions and elect leaders not by going out and screaming at each other in the streets.”

Protests, he says, are what you do when you can’t be heard through normal democratic channels. Exley believes political movements start with campaign messaging that leads people to the ballot box. Yet he thinks people are spending more time protesting.

Dr. Dudash-Burkirk says there are people who feel civility is not the answer, and in fact have told her civility is part of the problem because it slows down or even halts efforts to make change. When writing to one’s congressmen is met with silence or a form letter she acknowledges it “Makes us feel like we’re not heard.”

“Policy is slow,” she says. “Policy is incredible difficult to change. One rally does not change anything. One protest does not change anything.

Overnight revolutions don’t exist, she adds. Movements exist. But they’ll have setbacks. Dudask-Buskirk believes the 2016 election cycle and its divisive nature, particularly by then candidate Trump and later during the Trump-Clinton debates, sent a message that “civility is dead.” She, however, has been motivated by those claims.

Dudash-Buskirk is not focused on the question of whether “Can civility help?” but the belief that civility does help build communities.

“Disagreement is not uncivil. We become uncivil when take the focus away from what is building our community and what is harming our community. Disagreement does not harm our community. Violence harms a community. The unwillingness to listen harms a community.”

In addition to the events it sponsors, Be Civil, Be Heard has an advisory board, and a website featuring various blog topics encouraging conversations on civility.

Throughout the week during KSMU's Sense of Community series, we’ll hear from officials and citizens on their perceptions of civility and how they’ve used civil discourse to tackle complex subjects.

Follow Scott Harvey on Twitter: @scottksmu