The two sides of civility: Lessons from 2016

The holidays are a time for reflection.  It's important understand our role and responsibility going forward.  (Keith Smiley/Flickr Creative Commons) 

With just 26 days to go, it goes without saying that many are more than eager for 2016 to come to a close. However, the reality is, 2016 in its entirety will always be with us. The holidays are a time for both reflection and looking forward, this year perhaps more than most. As we head into the New Year, it would do good to recognize the legacy and lessons of 2016 we inherit, and what lies ahead - so that many of the same mistakes can be avoided. For those who are still deeply troubled by a Trump presidency, it is important to reflect back honestly, to understand our role and responsibility going forward. With that being said, in a year as historic and eventful as 2016, certain lessons are not yet clear. It will be some time before we can reflect back fully; however there already is much we know for sure. There are shifts in mindset we can take in our everyday lives when it comes to addressing the health, political and civic life from the grassroots - the only way if we are to truly move forward.

Many students headed back home during Thanksgiving Break in dread of talking politics with family members and relatives. This election and campaign season were certainly different than others in how rhetoric left many feeling personally threatened and targeted, with feelings still incredibly raw just weeks after the election. However, the tendency to avoid political discussion - with those of different opinion that us - is part of what got us in this situation in the first place, contributing to polarization, and continuing this way will only exacerbate the problem. Certainly, there is the need to recognize the proper place and time for productive political discussion. It is unlikely that Thanksgiving had much potential to be that space. However, the inability to discuss politics with people as close as one’s own family is troubling. “Bring It To The Table” is a documentary project that discusses how, somehow, “politics replaced sex as the one thing in America we don’t discuss in mixed company - even amongst friends or family” and the need to reclaim public discourse. Is it that we don’t know how to discuss politics, don’t think it’s possible, or that we don’t want to? Either way, or all of the above, it needs to change going forward. There is the need to engage, as well as the need to engage meaningfully. The inability to do either has lead to distrust, lack of respect, and assuming the worst in those different than us, phenomena that build upon themselves.

With that being said of the need for civility, there is much that we have learned about the shadow side of civility in 2016 as well: using the guise of “civility” to silence dissent and belittle feelings, allowing them to bubble but and create superficiality and a false sense of unity. While calling for more “respect” in public life, there is no obligation, need or time to respect White Nationalist groups and the like who have actively been supporting Trump and celebrating his victory as a victory for his cause. One of the most threatening ways to silence dissent in the weeks after the election has been telling people upset to “just get over it” and jump to unify, ignoring the depth of anger and fear millions have been feeling. Moving forward into 2017 and throughout the next four years will not just include, but require, protest, vocally expressing and/or acting in opposition whenever and however necessary. Reclaiming civility in politics is important, but we must also be aware of the ways in which it can be manipulated and its shortcomings. Expressing oneself and engaging in discussions about politics is important, but it is certainly not enough to safeguard against intrusions on civil liberties and civil rights, or when people’s lives are in danger.

Our politics are incredibly polarized, for a number of reasons, however this isn’t completely unlike any period of tension our country has seen and survived. Part of it relates to causes unique to the 21st century, but the majority relates to fundamental causes of human nature: the tendency to surround ourselves in ways that we feel safe or comfortable, or correct.


Marissa Piccolo is associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marissa.piccolo@uconn.edu. She tweets@marissapiccolo.