Commentary: Beware and Be Aware, Incivility is Contagious

Americans are worried about the state of incivility in our society. Our worry is borne out in a survey, Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey, that has published annual reports since 2010.

This set of annual surveys is designed to gauge Americans’ attitudes toward civility in a variety of areas impacting society and daily life. Three-quarters of Americans believe that incivility has risen to crisis levels, a rate that has increased significantly since January 2016.

Nearly nine in 10 Americans believe that uncivil discourse and behavior lead to extensive negative consequences: intimidation and threats, violence, cyberbullying, harassment, discrimination and unfair treatment of certain groups of people.

The survey published in 2017 reports increased personal experiences of incivility in the preceding year alone (2016), namely while on the road, in the marketplace, and at political events or rallies. One-quarter of Americans report having experienced incivility online or through cyberbullying, which represents nearly a three-fold increase (9 percent) since 2011.

The respondents in the surveys clearly place the blame for this epidemic of incivility on the effects of powerful people’s words, specifically politicians and other leaders, including the president. Most Americans (79 percent) say that politicians’ uncivil rhetoric is the primary contributor to greater incivility in society.

The survey’s second- and third-ranked sources of incivility are social media and 24-hour cable news. Americans who were surveyed say that excessive social media and news media coverage of uncivil language and behavior by politicians and other leaders beget even more incivility in society. The culture of incivility spreads as if it has contagious properties.

The statistics in these surveys paint a discouraging picture of the state of civility in America in 2018 – and they don’t begin to tell the full human story. Yet, we are finding ways to cultivate hope rather than despair.

A fundamental antidote to the culture of incivility is our ability and willingness to recognize and face it in all of its forms. The first step in solving a problem is admitting that we have a problem. These surveys certainly do that. By being aware and staying aware of the scope of incivility in our midst, we can be creative in taking steps to curb its spread. Being civil is contagious too.

Another antidote to the current culture of incivility is to hold those we deem responsible for it accountable for their words and actions.

To reach politicians, our vote is our voice. We can rejoice in the record voter turnout at the polls on Nov. 6. The unprecedented number of voters for this mid-term election speaks to the resilience of 75 percent of Americans who just last year named avoidance and loss of interest in political participation as a consequence of incivility in our society.

To read the Civility in America survey, go to

Susan McAninch is a retired clinical social worker and psychotherapist.

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