TED Conversations

Patrick Adams

Managing Director, Secret Weapon Marketing

TEDCRED 200+

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It's about time for civility to make a comeback. Not just in the current political mayhem, but everywhere.

What you do in the privacy of your home is no one’s business. But when you join the public - in a restaurant, at work, on the web, in the stands, on TV - you have a responsibility to not pollute our shared society by acting like a jerk. The goal of Civility Please is to encourage mutual respect and common courtesy, so we can all enjoy a more civil society. That doesn’t mean we should stop disagreeing with each other. It just means we should think before we speak, or hit send.

It means we should put away our phones and pay attention.

It means we should exchange ideas, instead of insults.

Civility Please will spread the word and act as a reminder to do your part. Our start at a solution is here:

www.civilityplease.org

But would love to know what you all think.

Topics: Civil discourse
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  • Feb 24 2011: I find if I am civil to others they tend to be civil to me. So if there is a lack of civility in our world, maybe we need to spend more time in front of the mirror.

    Politicians are a different matter. I propose that all political speeches should be made standing on one leg. When the other foot goes down, you have to shut up. Less time would then be devoted to trashing your opponent, and more time to suggesting concrete policies. Voila: instant civility.
    • Feb 26 2011: real nice and we should devote more time to electing one legged politicans
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    Feb 25 2011: I love the idea of this because I agree -- I feel like we're living in a day and age where it seems like some people don't give much thought to how they behave or what they say. It's not particularly hard to be civil -- and the bonus is, you come across as a lot more intelligent and reasonable when you can air your views without shouting over other people or insulting them.

    A good example would be Rush Limbaugh's latest criticism of Michelle Obama. This might seem like I'm going off on a tangent, but try and stick with me here because I promise I'm getting to a point. Rather than focusing on Limbaugh's criticism, I'd like to focus, instead, on Mike Huckabee's comments on the matter::

    "I still think her approach is the right one. I do not think that she is out there advocating that the government take over our dinner plates. In fact, she has not. She has been criticized unfairly by a lot of my fellow conservatives. I think it is out of a reflex rather than out of a thoughtful expression, and that is one of the things that bug me most about the political environment of the day."

    When he talks about how we should out loudly and harshly out of reflex rather than out of thoughtful expression, I feel like that's a direct commentary on how uncivil we've become...and you know, it's hard to take someone seriously or respect them when they're not putting any thought into what they're saying or doing.

    To me, that's part of what being civil is all about.
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    Feb 25 2011: People have been advocating civility for a long time. They have been making the same argument as Karen Armstrong in the linked video and it's a nobel, idealistic undertaking. I wish you the best of luck and hope you will be rewarded in heaven, because you will not be rewarded on earth.

    The problems:
    1. Uncivil behavior is effective.
    When angry mobs of people stormed town hall meetings, without a single rational thought, and hurled insults at elected officials it may have been revolting to those who appreciate reasoned arguments, but it changed elections and policy. Unless you want to crack down on free expression, people will use what works despite the polite outrage from the more refined among us.

    2. Uncivil communication can be more efficient.
    There are times, even in my own mild, even-tempered world, when nothing expresses my feelings better and quicker than my middle finger. I hate to admit it.

    3. Civility it not defined very well.
    Karen Armstrong asks us to use the golden rule and not do things to others which you would not like done to you. But this symmetry doesn't work in real life. For instance, I don't like to be publicly called out when I am wrong, but sometimes this needs to happen. In fact, I would prefer people didn't disagree with me at all most of the time, but I wouldn't call disagreement uncivil—my definition of civility is not based on the golden rule. Based on one of your answers below, your definition of civility includes social norms for modesty including the behavior of Elvis and the Kardashians. It used to be perfectly civil to shoot each other in a duel, so long as you were polite.

    I think the real solution is to attack the other end of the problem. Rather than beg people to act with more civility, teach people to think critically and learn to weed out emotional, non-rational arguments. When somebody drops the f-bomb and middle finger, learn to take a deep breath. Write laws to restrict violence and let social pressure do the rest.
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      Feb 26 2011: I don't know if I'd agree that uncivil behavior is effective or more efficient - sure, it makes things happen, but usually just stop gap measures and short term solutions to deal with the immediate inconvenience and annoyance of incivility.

      But I do agree about some sort of benchmark definition or description of the type of civility - or perhaps there are different types of civility for different types of situations. Certainly cultural norms vary enough that what's civil in one community (or era, as you pointed out) may not be civil in another.

      And I agree about your solution idea. I've long believed that many people simply don't understand how to have a difficult discussion or intelligent debate. There's often a lot of difficulty differentiating between facts and opinions - or maybe just great skill in manipulating opinions to look like facts.
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        Feb 26 2011: You make a good point that the short-term advantages may be outweighed by long term erosions of the things we love about our societies.

        The problem I have with this idea is that the call for civility is often interpreted to mean we should not give offense. It quickly becomes a call for politeness and coded speech. But it's far too easy to offend people and so you end up in a situation where you simply can't speak frankly about important subjects. This is why it is so difficult to speak about sex and race in the public space.

        It also focuses too much attention on the style rather than the substance and we end up in a situation where we allow the most vile things to happen so long as they are done politely. We all learn to speak in cordial euphemisms: we don't murder civilians, we pacify them, they are not dead children, they are collateral damage or soft targets. Hideous things, but we're so damned polite about it that it slips by.

        I suspect this is not what you or the OP meant by civility, but without a clearer definition and call for action I'm afraid this is how it will play out—another version of political correctness, In the public arena the biggest problem with people acting like jerks isn't that it's offensive, but that it's usually off topic and a smoke screen designed to prevent real discourse. It's not necessary to call them out for being jerks, but simply ask them to make their point. People who act like jerks usually fall apart with a dialectic approach. It's been effective since Socrates' day.
  • Feb 25 2011: I think you are wasting your time. Did this civility project grow out of the recent political propoganda surrounding the unfortunate events in Arizona? In any case, the premise that people have a responsibilty when emerging in public to act in certain extra-legal ways subject to the demands of others, ostensibly for the greater good of society, is a bit nannyish,in the least ,don't you think? I mean, I get it about acting decently ,broadly defined,to my fellow humans.And I know what" decently" is. I don't need a do-gooder group to help me to get "my mind right" The overwhelming majority of people do not need a pressure group to define or promote civil behavior on their behalf. Most people are like the judge when asked to define pornography said " I cannot define it but I know what it is when I see it". People are like that about incivility. If you have to go around advancing the notion of civility beyond what people already know about it you are ,ipso facto, involved in some sort of re-definition of what constitutes civility. This is why I think that all this civility talk of late is purely politically motivated and aimed at keeping criticisms of the status quo at a less-stinging minimum.
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      Feb 25 2011: Does it really matter what the project grew from? I think the premise that people *don't* have a responsibility to act civilly is a bit Neanderthalish, myself. How can it be "nannyish" to suggest people stick to the issues and ideas in discussions, rather than boorish and unconstructive personal attacks and vitriol? What's wrong with suggesting people socially evolve and simply grow up in how they talk to and behave with each other?

      Interestingly, I've found that those most opposed to civil conduct and discussion are those who don't want to take the time to really get their facts straight in a discussion, and are more interested in being right at all costs, than in actually trying to understand an issue or problem. It's as if it's too much work to listen to and honestly consider what other people have to say, and rather than engaging in constructive dialog, they just want to have their (often unsubstantiated) say and be done with it.

      One can be quite "stinging" with civil criticisms, and I think that's what people are missing in the call for civility. Civility doesn't mean we politely let people walk all over us or that we accept wrong doing because we're too nice to do something about it, or that we tolerate political shenanigans. Civility says we fight with facts, like mature, intelligent adults, couching our criticisms with well aimed logic and evidence, focusing on the issues and not on the people behind the issues.

      Civility gives us greater power than incivility, because it keeps us above the fray, and provides nothing against which others can push. "Hot buttons" are disabled. Smoke and mirrors are revealed for what they are. Focusing solely on the issues emasculates personal attacks.

      I don't see "CivilityPlease" as a "pressure group," but as an advocacy group, challenging us to the higher level of conduct of which almost every one of us is capable. I think the power of civility is far greater than many believe.
      • Feb 26 2011: Yes it does matter from whence the civility project grew.Its an important and pivotal question as to whether it was largely inspired by the horrible events in Arizona(if not in its inception then its recent reactivation in this forum). Strong partisan forces at that time jumped ruthlessly to exploit an event that possessed no discernible, overt political motivation. They sought to somehow attach this murder and mayhem to opposing individuals and groups that had absolutely nothing to do with the bloodshed in any form. In the failed wake of their nefarious efforts they then sought to salvage their position by bringing up : you guessed it, the civility issue. Suddenly the murder and mayhem was somehow,someway attributable not to a crazed and pathetically sick individual acting alone but to the level of political discourse currently raging in our country; a discourse which they,by their actions ,and evidenced in recent elections, viewed themselves as losing. Now by this point they were clearly beginning to run out of credible strawmen in which to blame this whole pitiful affair upon,just at the moment the little girl was being lowered into the ground.
        This is the recent pedigree of your civility issue. I suggest you do whatever is polemically feasible to radically and instantly disavow any connection betwixt your efforts and these deplorable propaganda fiascos lest they be regarded by observers as one and the same.
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          Feb 26 2011: I civilly disagree. ;-) And while I appreciate your concern -- as a complete stranger no less! - regarding the people and the ideas with which I associate, I'll make my own choices there, based on my own research and goals. "Civility" is one of those general, all purpose useful ideas that can be applied any number of ways to any number of situations.

          The general and unspecified nature of the accusations being leveled here is just the type of language that acts as a conversation stopper in many efforts to understand issues and resolve problems. "Strong partisan forces" - "they sought..." "they were running out of strawmen" - Who's they? What are the facts of the matter? This type of rhetoric is what I believe lies at the heart of true propaganda, and the reason we would benefit from true civil discourse.
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      Feb 25 2011: Our idea for Civility Please existed long before the Tucson shootings and the reaction to them. It's a timeless idea, really. And while it certainly applies to political pundits who trade insults instead of ideas, it's meant to remind everyone to keep civility in mind every day. We don't have a new definition of civility in mind, we'd be thrilled if everyone--politicians, soccer dads, reality show producers, commuters--remembered to embrace it more often.
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    Feb 24 2011: This is a subject near and dear to my heart, and I think crucial to human societies. I completely agree about the need to reinject civility into discourse and everyday life. I was delighted to heard about Civility Please a couple of weeks ago and have been spreading the word ever since. Among other things, I coach an award winning FIRST high school level robotics team and our team philosophy has always been on what FIRST terms "Gracious Professionalism," basic professional civility, and we insist on civil and kind conduct among student members at meetings and at events. This past season we had to deal with some uncivil student behavior, but we did, and I think all involved, from students to parents,rose to the occasion. One of our students even said he'd rather lose together as a team, than win at the cost of division and incivility. That student is 16 years old.

    I think civility has fallen on hard times. People sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between discussing issues and lambasting people who's opinions on those issues differ. Debate becomes bogged down in vitriol. Resolution and insight becomes buried in the ruckus of incivility.

    There's a young man who works at a drug store near me, who's quite friendly and always greets shoppers with a cheerful "Hi, how are you?" He always delighted when I reply, "Fine, how are you doing today?" and he takes the time to tell me. He really wants to know. He clearly likes people. He was clearly surprised when I looked him in the eye and smiled and chatted. Is it really that rare a thing to do?

    I think one good first step is just that - to look each other in the eye, and see our shared humanity reflected there.
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      Feb 24 2011: Yes to everything you said. I'd add that civility does not mean we all need to agree. That's unreasonable to expect, and would make for a pretty boring society. It does mean that we need to figure out how to deal with each other KNOWING we'll still disagree in the end. Civility may have a more important role in disagreement than in agreement.
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    Mar 5 2011: AMEN!
  • Mar 4 2011: Hello Patrick,
    As you may know Scott Gilbert and Carole Kitchell are at TEDActive now in Palm Springs. We are producing our second TEDx event at University of Denver in May. We are enthusiastic for your CivilityPlease project. Look forward to running into you on Montana.
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    Feb 26 2011: Good to see this initiative. I've written specifically about the challenge of fostering and maintaining online civility particularly in emotionally charged contexts of violent conflict. See Beyond O’Reilly’s online civility dictum: Fostering healthy debate on the web and internet (http://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2007/04/26/beyond-oreillys-online-civility-dictum-fostering-healthy-debate-on-the-web-and-internet/) and Blogging Code of Conduct: Does one size fit all? (http://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2007/04/10/blogging-code-of-conduct-does-one-size-fit-all/)
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    Feb 26 2011: Civility originates from a place of feeling "sufficent" - from a place of truly believing that there is enough to go around, and that sharing or letting others go first in no way diminishes your odds.

    We have created a society based on fear: fear that there isn't enough to go around, fear that we are inadequate, fear that we will be found out.

    We delight in other people's failures and then wonder why we worry about covering and managing our own foibles and flaws.

    We shun, we denigrate, we demonstrate phony sympathy for those who can't/don't/won't toe the line (except for the chosen few we deem "genius") and then we INTERNALIZE. We envy and then punish those who "think they are too good" (again unless we deem them "genius") - we have to "take them down a peg".

    We seem to be fighting for this mythical and mythically-finite resource of "awesomeness" (or we could just call it self-esteem) - if someone is taking too much of it, then there is less for others. Less for us.

    We are so fundamentally broken and so needing of healing from the inside out that I'm not sure we are capable of civility right now. The lack of civility is merely a symptom of a much deeper issue.


    (I am developing a personal policy of posting before reading other responses so as not to shift my gut response. Someone else may also say something similar - don't view it as "redundant", view it as being on the same wavelength.)
    • Feb 27 2011: "We have created a society based on fear," is this hyperbole, or do you really feel this way? IMO our society is still based on individualism. The belief that merely "hard" work will get you ahead still applies. If you combine hard work with "smart" work, the world is yours, but more so.

      Your comment worries me, if it's not hyperbole
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        Mar 7 2011: The "fear" in question is the fear of being "different" or of failing. And yes, there are exceptions to every rule.

        Take the time to ask people if that are doing what they truly want to be doing with their lives, you might be surprised how many people sacrifice what they dream in order to conform. What do you think motivates that?

        FYI: the Internet is full of people who aren't from the US. We don't all buy the mythology of the rugged individualist who makes it on the sweat of his brow, when the reality is the people who have made it have been helped along the way by countless others who have supported them in their quest. It's not the wild west anymore.
  • Feb 25 2011: This is much simpler than anyone imagines. It's absolutely completely doable right now. It's just unfamiliar territory. ;)
    Everyone is open and everyone alive and mildly intelligent has something amazing to share with the world, both individually and universally, and is willing to share it. There are no walls, but a lot of people for some reason just imagine everyone else does. It's funny how a lifetime seeing something a certain way or being told it is can be so difficult to reverse, even when we know it's all an illusion.

    At the same time, just because something has been, is now and possibly always will be, doesn't mean it's the way it should be or the best way it could be.

    Just the fact that you (Patrick and everyone else) understand this and you 'think' something has to be done, or others need to understand this, means it's up to YOU to do EVERYTHING about it.
    Knowing something, understanding what it takes, and applying it to your life are all completely different, the last step is easy but the rarest. I'm with you, if you keep going then it'll all come together in time. Will it match imagination? That's for you to decide. ;)
  • Feb 25 2011: Yes, more civility would be beneficial. Hell, I'll accept more patience in lieu of civility, also. With that said, I believe that incivility is a tool that I'm unwilling to banish from my tool box. I think when people become uncivil or angry, it means they've been pushed too far/fast and perceive they've been wronged. It's a warning the message is not being understood, or has flaws. This is where the patience would be handy.

    I love the theory of standing on one leg. The application would be difficult, maybe impossible, and surely distracting, but if we enacted it for a day, I'm convinced that mankind would profit. One thing is for sure, we wouldn't take ourselves too seriously. Good Topic!
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      Feb 25 2011: Why do you need to be uncivil to get your point across? How does that help anyone understand a message hasn't been communicated properly, when incivility itself poorly communicates needs or information?

      I think there continues to be a misunderstanding about just what civility is. You can be angry and civil, mad as hell and civil, outraged and civil. These are not mutually exclusive conditions.

      Purposely being uncivil isn't a tool for communications - it's a breakdown in discourse that sets up an insurmountable wall between people that's rarely breached in any productive or useful manner. I think people are way too fast to become uncivil and angry, and seem to get "pushed" too easily.

      I agree patience is a key tool, and also an integral part of civility. Maybe more backbone would help, too!
      • Feb 25 2011: "Purposely being uncivil isn't a tool for communications" I disagree. Your point and mine may not be too different. Sometimes a conversation turns into a soliloquy. It's clear to one, the conversation has broken down, but the speaker continues. An "excuse me," won't suffice, because the speaker is talking over the other. Sometimes the speaker is ignoring, which is uncivil, but sometimes the speaker is completely oblivious. Either form causes a lot of frustration. I think it's fine to jolt the speaker out of the comfort zone, and if you've failed with tact and patience, being more aggressive is a valid, and if that's uncivil, I'm ok with that. Most people will be able to reconcile if they're working together. If the speaker is ignoring the other on purpose, it's already a fight, and expecting the other side to behave in a civil way is wishful thinking. I think being civil is preferred, but incivility gets results, also. Civil is the rule, incivility is the exception and sometimes it's the best tool in the box.

        If you prefer, I'll make an example, but I'm hoping you understand, it's far down the list of options, but not off the list.

        However; a definition of civility might be worthwhile, just to ensure we're sharing the same reference point.
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          Feb 26 2011: I think you may be right - we're probably talking about the same thing from slightly different perspectives. When I seriously consider what I think you're saying, especially in the light of recent "civil unrest" across North Africa and in the Middle East, I find myself agreeing with, and seeing the value of, your statement "civil is the rule, incivility the exception."

          If, in fact, civility can be the rule in most cases - ordinary political discourse, day to day professional and business conduct, a societal norm - then those instances that require something stronger - those moment and situations that have made it down to the bottom of the list of options - would have greater, more far reaching impact.

          Civility, I think, should set the bar high, though, and I think the threshold for retreating from civil conduct should be much higher than it usually is. I agree, too, that a definition of civility would be helpful. The dictionary simply says something along the lines of "mannered conduct." What are you thinking of when we say "civility"? How about you, Patrick?
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          Feb 28 2011: I think Mark Meyer hits on good examples of civility, though he may call them something else. His idea of confronting smoke screens designed to obscure a point with a solid argument is exactly the kind of substantive, yet civil, disagreement that can lead to progress rather than an acrimonious stalemate. It's not JUST manners, though they do play a role.
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          Mar 2 2011: I think this is an important point. Civil disagreement - informed, reasoned discourse and rebuttal -- can be a powerful tool against empty rhetoric. Recently, I've been hearing from people disenchanted with a local youth program. Many are reluctant to voice their concerns, because they feel it's a volatile issue with the person they have to take it up with (the "fear" mentioned below), and because of concerns that they won't be heard, or because they don't want to come off seeming ungrateful or petty.

          But the issues they raise are valid and important ones to address in a youth program. They're concerns that can be raised civilly, pointedly and specifically, and could help start an important dialog. But people have to have the courage and the tools, to speak up in ways that help them be heard, and other people have to have the skills it takes to listen to them.
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    Feb 25 2011: About time for civility to make a comeback from where? When? Your question suggests a Golden Age when we were all civil to each other. When was that?
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      Feb 25 2011: While I fully support the notion we need to bring civility to our civilizations, I don't believe there's been any "golden age" precedent for it. Human history is clearly rife with incivility. However - the fact that we can envision, and on smaller scales create, civil discourse and institutions means we can work for it at a higher social level.

      As Patrick's pointed out, and as many people are well aware, being civil doesn't mean we don't disagree with one another. But it does elevate our conversations and our decision making processes so that we can put our minds more towards finding solutions than trying to be heard over the ruckus of uncivil rhetoric and vitriol.

      Committing ourselves to civil discourse and conduct makes us choose our words more carefully - thereby forcing us to take a little more time to choose the right words in the first place -- listen more closely to what others are saying, and weigh the merits or lack thereof of issues, rather than of the people behind those issues. If we can stay focused on issues and ideas without constantly devolving into personal attacks, I think we could get more done, socially, economically and politically.
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      Feb 25 2011: Fair enough, I did not mean to suggest a long lost Garden of Eden where civility reigned supreme. I do think, however, that in the last few decades, the acceptance of uncivil behavior has risen. In the 50's, television networks refused to show Elvis Presley from the waist down, yet today we celebrate the Kardashians. This legitimizes uncivil behavior, making it easier for the dad to drop the F-bomb on the ref at the 8 year old's soccer game and less surprising when we see political talking heads trading insults instead of ideas.