By Bob Houghtaling

A significant portion of my job is working with young people regarding leadership, problem solving and critical thinking. These skills can help prepare students become more capable citizens. I wrote this article shortly after an EGHS Philosophy Club session where we discussed how to critically analyze situations while searching for truth. Along the way, I reminded the class of the importance for honest and open inquiry. It was in this context that “radical civility” came about.

This is a call for radical civility. In an era of ridiculous extremes, listening, compromise, logic, fairness and respect are now considered quaint or weak. Quick fixes, blame, finger pointing, blind loyalty, misogyny, prejudice and bombastic diatribes are in vogue. Our leaders throw kerosene on the fire of our fears, while too many either sit back confused, or lash out at those they believe are against “us.” In the depths of our hearts, we all know better. We all know that there just might be a third option–that option being radical civility.

In essence, radical civility is a call for thoughtful consideration. This consideration includes facts, an honest appraisal of prevailing situations, working with others to find the best solutions possible and welcoming new ideas. It encourages dialogue, diverse viewpoints, loyal opposition and the ability to change when necessary. While none of this is rocket science, the consideration(s) explained above might go the way of the dodo bird unless some democratic conservationists intervene.

Our political scene has become mired in a miasma of mistrust, party politics, fear mongering, money and fatigue. Sure, the American system (on paper) is beautiful. But, all too often, corrections are necessary to steer the boat. In this case the corrections have to come from “we the people.”

Do we want leaders who divide and posture? Anger and inciting people into a fright–filled state might get one elected, but is it what’s best for the populace? Many can point to problems, few are able to offer solutions. This is true on both the local and national level(s).

A number of years back I worked with school officials to help create a bullying policy for the East Greenwich schools. At the time there was a great deal of concern regarding bullying and the district wanted to take a stand. Unfortunately, forgotten in such efforts is how adults treat each other. Bullying has become rampant. On the political scene (all across the nation) it is now common fare. When caught, those who bully assert that “they are being tough” or that “no one wants to hear the real truth.” Displaying ignorance, they pose at innocence. All of this reflects poor leadership. Worse still, it becomes a model for future leaders who choose such methods. For these, civility is indeed a radical concept. Don’t you think we should expect better? We cannot sit back and just blame poor leaders however. We must make greater efforts as to how we select them and what is expected. We too must demonstrate civility.

So again, this is a call for radical civility. It’s a shame that civility needs to be radical these days, but history is replete with instances calling for Lincoln, Parks, King, and others, radicalizing civility. In fact, their civility was often called uncivil by those in opposition.

Radical civility is not passive. It calls for courage in the face of turmoil. It calls for making responses that are based on principles. Civility should not be the domain of just R’s and D’s. It is for us all to consider.  

I have often been naïve enough to believe that love and stability need not be politicized or fought over. Unfortunately, just the opposite is true. These two must be protected from the forces and ideas that choose to subvert them.

How do we put radical civility into practice? Becoming involved with our communities is a start. Follow this up with standing by the basic core values we already have as Americans. Finally, let’s count the many gifts we have. Every single day we wake up in a country that provides things few (if any) others can. We must be willing to acknowledge this. Americans are best when we fight to aspire to the highest ideals of our constitution. We fall short when fear rules. Civility is active and should not be confused with Neville Chamberlain-type assuagement. It is hard work. Becoming informed, involved and caring citizens, is a gift we can deliver to future generations. Is that so radical after all?

Bob Houghtaling is an American who once served on the Exeter-West Greenwich School Committee (as a Republican, believe it or not). He has worked in the mental health field for close to 40 years and considers himself lucky to be an American. Houghtaling also believes that how we treat each other plays a key role in establishing a nation’s sense of wellness.