Life Is Not a Zero Sum

May 3, 2011

There Can Be Only One!

I have taken some time off writing and speaking about civility, mainly to recover from my own experience of running for public office. I am firmly convinced that there is no better way to truly understand how the American political system actually operates than to run for elected office. I am equally convinced that there is no better way for a person to lose hope in their fellow citizens and to become a hardened cynic towards the degeneration of the American political system than to run for elected office. Fortunately, the lessons of the former condition have helped me to understand the underpinnings of civility in American society even better. The lessons of the latter condition were only temporary and were off-set by the sheer number of amazing people I met throughout the course of the 15 months I spent campaigning.

I have said, on numerous occasions, that I do not look to politicians or the American political process for working examples of civility. Politics is the dark side of the more civilized practice of statecraft. Statesmanship, diplomacy, peace-making; these are terms that illicit good feelings and high thoughts when we hear them. But when we hear the word “politics”, the most frequent responses we all share are those of revulsion, disgust, disappointment and irritation. Whether it is politics in the workplace, in our local community or on a national level, we place the practice of politics far beneath most of the least desirable traits and activities known to man.

Why is it that politics, which finds its origins in something as noble as statesmanship and diplomacy, is considered to be such an ugly and uncivil enterprise – particularly in the highly contentious and venomous atmosphere of the last 10 years in the United States? It was while running for a state level elected office that I believe I found the answer.

Politics in America, when it has been exercised most effectively, has gravitated toward the more “noble” end of the scale. By that, I mean that effective politics results when it is most like diplomacy, consensus building and compromise. Think about your initial gut reaction to that last word – compromise. How you feel about compromise has a large part to play in what I’ve learned about civility in politics; a point I’ll revisit towards the end of this posting.

If we think about the current political atmosphere in the United States, what terms come to mind?




Today, politics is most certainly pegged to the “worse than the practice and people that scam senior citizens” end of the spectrum.

When I ran for office, I was told on multiple occasions that my opinion or a position on a particular issue didn’t “fit” with that person’s expectations of the political party I was affiliated with. Time and again I was told “I like you and I think you’re the better candidate, but I can’t vote for you because you’re in the wrong party”. It was this constant exposure to the process in which people rationalized voting against their own personal desires, and even against their own interests, that brought me to an understanding of why politics in America is so uncivil today. Politicians and many Americans have convinced themselves that politics is a zero-sum game. The political discourse in the United States is based on one simple assumption that is being reinforced by the two primary political parties every single day in the media. Republicans and Democrats alike have usurped a line from a 1980’s movie and made it the guiding star of their political compasses – “There can be only one!”

In high school government classes around the nation, students are taught that we have a representative government. We’re told that our exceptional form of government has been a successful “experiment” (Thomas Jefferson’s own description) because of the strength of our democratic principles. And yet, we have witnessed a political devolution in America since the end of President Eisenhower’s administration. Win-at-all-costs are now demanded of everyone from Presidents to school board members. Our leaders talk endlessly about how great democracy is for every other country, but then systematically take every step possible to destroy their opposing party colleagues and invalidate their positions, beliefs and proposals. In America, politics has become a zero sum equation. There must be a winner and there must be a loser. There are no win-win scenarios in our nation – if you believe what our political leaders are saying. If one side wins, inevitably their win will result in the complete collapse of the United States as we know it – or so the opposition will state in a press conference immediately after a bill has been passed.

If someone must win and someone must lose, the opportunity for civility to manifest is greatly reduced. And let’s face it, in today’s political environment, the vast majority of our leaders don’t want the other side to lose – they want the other side’s position destroyed entirely. It is this environment that has resulted in the collapse of civility in our political discourse. It is this environment that has invalidated the necessity for the practice of “respecting the office” of our Congressmen and Congresswomen, of our Senators, of our County Commissioners and of our Commander in Chief.  In a world where the only outcome is that I must win and you must lose, civility’s days are certainly numbered.

The obvious flaw in this thinking is that it is simply not true. Life is not a zero sum game. Over our lifetimes, wins and loses are not balanced out in such a way that we have accomplished nothing on the eve of our final day on earth. Our gains do not ultimately equal our losses such that no value is generated.  Humanity has moved forward because of the great leaps and bounds taken when people come together to achieve more than the individual outputs of a single person. In America, it is not about “us” versus “them”. We are a nation founded, very explicitly, on “we”. During times of great cataclysm and catastrophe, “we” the people have shown that regardless of our thoughts, ideals or beliefs that life is win-win, not win-lose.

So, think about that word mentioned above; compromise. If your gut reaction to that word is that it is unacceptable or that it suggests weakness, maybe you’re part of that population that believes there is only one right answer, one clear path, one simple solution. If the idea of our elected officials compromising for a better outcome for everyone in our country is distasteful, then maybe you’ve bought into the belief that life is a zero sum game.

Me? I still believe in a win-win America.

Disagreeable and Civil – What is Incivility?

September 21, 2009

Incivility is inexcusable.

This simple statement that serves as a guide for all of my thinking, writing and speaking on civility, elicits a large number of emotional and intellectual reactions. Sometimes these reactions are surprisingly negative.

Frequently, I am either asked or demanded to accept that incivility is excusable and justifiable when the situation warrants it. I have been told that civility “is not an absolute”. I have been told that I simply do not understand how complicated the world is, and that incivility is not only acceptable but it is to be expected. I have been told being uncivil was the reason for the successes of our colonies in fighting the British, fighting totalitarians, and combating communism.

And, and to all of these points I must respectfully disagree.

First, saying that incivility is inexcusable is not the same as saying that incivility is intolerable. We tolerate incivilities every single day. We even engage in incivilities ourselves, feeling either guilty or justified when we do so. But, tolerating incivility is different than excusing it. Communities and individuals alike will tolerate incivility to a point, and only when a threshold is reached will they act. Sometimes civilly, sometimes not. If we excuse incivility though, we support and endorse a society where civility has no meaning or place over the long term.

If we look back on the etymological roots of the word civility, we will remember that “people” are at the very core of the term. When civility has completely collapsed, we are placing ourselves against people. We are on the short and potentially bloody road to inhumanity.

Art credit - Scott Gustafson

Art credit - Scott Gustafson

Second, if we serve as apologists for small incivilities we will be more prone to cover our eyes, ears and mouths when those incivilities grow. In a future post, I am going to dedicate time and effort to a post about Hitler’s strategies that eventually led to the establishment of the Third Reich. Suffice it to say for this article, Hitler’s tactics started with sending his followers to disrupt meetings and businesses using rude and incivil behavior – which eventually became more and more aggressive until it resulted in merchants, citizens and political opponents being openly beaten in the streets of Germany.

There is no sensationalism in this claim; if you inspect the footprints of tyrants in history, you will find that all of them started their climb to inhumanity by engaging in small incivilities, first.

Third, and finally, incivility and protest are not to be confused. Civility is the fundamental respect that we accord to each and every person, in order to have a functioning community. If I disagree with you, that is not uncivil. If I demand that you believe what I believe, that is uncivil. Demanding that you subscribe to my world view is not an exercise of that fundamental respect mentioned above. If I act rudely, but I ask for your forgiveness by way of an apology, I am not acting uncivilly. I am acknowledging the value I place on our community by abiding by the fundamental respect required to keep it functioning. If I act rudely, and continue to press this rudeness to the point of aggression, I am being uncivil. In fact, I am declaring that I am not interested in being a part of this community that we’ve agreed to respect each other in.

Protest against an unjust system is not incivility. When King George III determined that colonists were not entitled to representation, that they must provide natural resources to England but purchase manufactured goods only from the British and that they must provide housing and food for British soldiers against their will he was declaring that the bounds of civility did not extend from the British throne to the shores of America. The heaping of incivilities on the colonies, when stacked one on the other, moved the needle to injustice. Injustice can, and frequently has been, met with civil disobedience. In many cases though, injustice is met with violence and war.

Incivility is opposition to civility. Inhumanity is the absence of civility in its entirety. But, protest is the response to injustice, perceived or real. Being uncivil doesn’t lead to protest, it leads to inhumanity. The goal of protesting isn’t to be uncivil, it is to correct a perceived or real injustice. In many ways protest is about supporting civility, not condoning incivility.

The terms and concepts are certainly interrelated, but in the end, it all starts with respecting the intrinsic value in each and every person. It all starts with civility.

Why Be Civil?

January 25, 2009

Over the course of the last 50 years in America (and around the world), we have witnessed a constant erosion of civility in our personal lives, home communities, local and national governments and in our interactions at the international level amongst powers, both super and not.

In this span of time, we have gone from a consumer-oriented environment where uniformed personnel pumped our gas and checked our oil, to fast food counters where staff members look as if they would rather strap us to a medieval torture device, than take a simple order for fries and a milk shake.

We have seen American sports devolve from a civil endeavor amongst sportsmen and sportswomen to parents shrieking at volunteer referees at soccer matches and pee wee football games. The collapse of civility is so thorough in our sporting lives that parents have actually physically assaulted and even killed each other over perceived “blown calls” and other children’s unsportsmanlike behavior.

Around the world, people now feel entitled to inquire, debate and belittle other people for the ideas they hold, the countries they originate from and the leaders they follow. A laundry list of subjects that were once considered “bad form” for discussion at the dinner table are now consider fair game and appropriate ground for showing everyone how witty, intelligent or wry we are.

Doors are no longer held open – not for women, children or even the elderly. Vulgar gestures are shown in an effort to communicate our contempt for a person driving the exact speed limit, and the vulgarity is answered with gunfire. Entire generations of our youth have such utter contempt for civility that acquaintance rape, drive-by shootings, school bus beat downs, pornographic cell phone picture “love letters”, and trench coat mafias are almost accepted as part and parcel of growing up in America.

How and when did we reach a point when hand shakes, returning eye contact with our conversation partner, exchanging “please” and “thank you” and being concerned about the well being of a stranger become almost reviled aspects of our culture? And, does it matter?

I believe that there isn’t just a case to be made for the return of civility in our lives, I believe that it is a fundamental necessity to our survival as a species on this planet. Without the practice of civility, life has become a vicious activity focused on escalation. Instead of situations being handled in a civil manner, with a positive outcome for both participants, there now must be a winner in every interaction. And, if I don’t win, I escalate. You call me a name, I call you a name. You raise your hand, I beat you to the punch. You pull out a knife, I reach for my gun. In our intimate lives, we went from a world where kissing in public was a sign of promiscuity to an escalated environment where young teens virtually (and sometimes in reality) have sex on the dance floor in front of their peers and colleagues.

Civility says that I respect you as a person. That sometimes my needs have to be put aside to accomplish a greater good between us.  That, on occasion, I have to withhold what I want to say so that I can listen to what you have to say.

It is time for civility to return; before it is too late for all of us.