Volume X | Issue 1 | Spring 2010
Our communities have many issues—taxes, public works projects, zoning—that can generate intense and often uncivil debate, says Tom Gallagher.

True leaders understand civility

Raucous debates come too easily in our modern society

Our world has many issues—abortion, war, climate change— that generate intense and often uncivil debate. Our communities also have many issues—taxes, public works projects, zoning—that also can generate intense and often uncivil debate. I would argue that the intensity is not an issue, but the incivility is. Over the years of trying to improve my own civility, I’ve coalesced a few thoughts on the subject. 

First, name calling doesn’t harm my opponent and really just reflects poorly on me. It is compelling sometimes to say my opponent is a “blankety blank” or is just as bad as “so and so,” but this behavior increasingly makes me look small. Sometimes I find I have really misunderstood the other person and been unfair if not mean spirited. I’ve noticed that the best community leaders simply don’t do these things.  

strong community leaders take the time to listen

Sarcasm—humor meant to hurt—is much about me trying to be clever. I grew up thinking sarcasm was a higher form of humor, but now I see it as cheap and, with some gentle exceptions, downright mean. The root of the word in Greek means “to cut flesh” and I doubt if this behavior can exist alongside humility, one of my personal goals in this life. I’ve noticed that the best community leaders are not sarcastic. 

With time I’ve come to see how important it is to understand and accurately represent the other person’s position and motive. It is easier, of course, to frame my opponents’ positions in the most negative light and to make their motives sound sinister. This not only avoids the truth and is unfair, but I might believe myself. I’ve found that when I get to know the other person, our differences are often not that great, or at least there are areas of agreement which give us some common ground. Again, I’ve noted that strong community leaders take the time to listen, understand and to look for agreement. 

Not black and white

Time has also taught me that most issues are very complicated. The polar positions offered by many intense voices often create a black and white, you are either “wit me or agit me,” situation. This over simplification of the issue leads to an equally over-simplified solution, which just creates more problems. The strong community leader accepts the reality of complexity. 

In my effort to be more civil and humble I haven’t given up my deepest values or become wishy-washy on matters that are not negotiable. I have found for the vast majority of situations there are other legitimate ways to perceive an issue, and each is based on a rationale. If I look at that rationale through the lens of my opponents I begin to understand why they hold that position. A valuable outcome is that by knowing my opposition I am able to make my position stronger. As Aristotle said: “A fool tries to convince me with his logic; a wise man tries to convince me with mine.” 

It is particularly easy to be uncivil in our modern society where we probably have never met those with whom we disagree. Media personalities lob cheap grenades of incivility at faceless opponents, many of whom may not even exist. For me, such behavior at best expresses legitimate frustration and at worst expresses ignoble character and certainly a lack of leadership. I’ve found that until I’ve really talked with my opponent, ideally over a meal, that I don’t feel I have the standing to offer a true and fair opinion of their position. I find myself curiously quiet sometimes in the midst of intense debate as I strive to understand.  

One of our hopes at the Institute is that our leadership class graduates are among those who can model civility, and who as a network can imbue the work of developing vital rural communities with civility.  

Civility in communities

There have been many efforts to increase civility in the United States. In 1867, after the Civil War, Oliver Kelley and six others founded The National Grange “to restore kindly feelings among the people” in the war-torn South. The Grange spread to the North and West and Grange Halls have served as a gathering place for communities all through Oregon and Siskiyou County over the decades. And in 1905, Paul Harris founded the Rotary Club of Chicago, now Rotary International, which has spread to many of our rural communities. Rotary offers four ethical tests of behavior which have much to do with civility: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? And, will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Conflict may be inevitable

but mediation services available

The last issue of Community Vitality featured a column on neighborhood disputes by Tom Gallagher, director of the Ford Institute for Community Building. Judging by the comments we received, “On being a good neighbor” struck a chord with our readers. “I love that you are recognizing disputes,” wrote Shelley Hanson, director of the Spirit Mountain Community Fund. “Whether we like it or not, conflict is inevitable.”

She went on to point out some valuable resources that are readily available throughout Oregon that allow people to work towards a mutually acceptable solution. Most of them are free. 

Housed within the University of Oregon School of Law, the Oregon Office for Community Dispute Resolution (OOCDR) currently supports 20 community dispute resolution centers in 25 Oregon counties. In 2007-2009, 950 professionally trained volunteers provided mediation and conflict resolution educational services to nearly 30,000 Oregonians. 

The Oregon Mediation Association Web site maintains a searchable database of non-profit agencies as well as private mediators. A complete list of Oregon resources can also be obtained at the University of Oregon’s Office for Community Dispute Resolution.

“As a trained mediator and board member of Neighbor-to-Neighbor in Marion County,” Hanson wrote, “it’s always touching to hear the number of conflicts that are resolved so that families, neighbors and communities can resolve their differences and live peacefully together.”

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