Setting The Standards of ‘Civility’ and ‘Unity’ As Politically-Motivated Violence Replaces Civil Engagement
US President Donald Trump called for civility and unity after several Democrats received packages containing homemade explosives from a man who happened to be a Trump supporter. Although Trump’s attempts to appeal to common decency and the common good were a positive move in turns of outreach, he also placed much of the blame on Democrats and the media for creating a negative political environment, thus tainting his constructive message. In turn, the majority of professional media outlets focused on that part of the President’s statement and his divisive nature. In essence, the President and his critics simply blamed each other instead of leading on the issue and taking responsibility for the current state of politics. This exchange then continued after a Right-wing shooter killed eleven people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The pattern demonstrates the failure of social leaders to learn what they need to cultivate civility and unity.
The President’s response to the Tree of Life shooting was to blame the incident on the lack of armed guards inside the synagogue. Not surprisingly, religious leaders asked President Trump not to speak or come after he announced plans to visit Pittsburgh in response to the mass shooting. While the President cannot rightfully be blamed for the threats of violence and the acts of violence, it is true that his rhetoric does encourage those who feel violence is their best option. Trump, like many politicians on both the Right and Left, is an agitator. He rallies people up, so they feel compelled to act. For those who feel violence is an acceptable and effective means to achieve their objectives, the words of someone like Trump serve as triggers. Because the President practices divisive politics in the extreme, i.e. he rallies people against those who have opposing views by framing the opposition as “enemies,” and he avoids alienating his fringe supporters by refusing to condemn their extremist ways, his words encourage his violent supporters to act on their violent urges. He has, now undeniably, helped triggered some violent extremists.
If a political figure is going to be divisive, it necessary for that individual to guide followers by inspiring them to take action that will fulfill their desire for change. Otherwise, the divisive politician is simply telling followers to act. Recognizing violence is the easiest and most obvious way to deal with a problem, as well as the natural impulse of all animals, political leaders must encourage followers to adopt civil engagement over conflict. When someone is rallying supporters with calls to defeat the “enemy,” it is very difficult to see action as voting in midterm elections, especially when they are also being told that the system is rigged. People turn to civil engagement over violent reprisal, because they believe social institutions will address their interests and whatever issues they are facing. When people no longer feel civility can be effective, more and more will turn to violence, especially when they are being encouraged to “act.” That is the responsibility divisive leaders like Donald Trump have.
It is not simply the media’s job to "set a civil tone" It is the responsibility of all social and political leaders. Just calling for civility and unity is not, however, leading. Obviously, words matter in politics. Words are action in the political theatre, but it is the impact of words that matter. When Donald Trump, or anyone for that matter, calls for civility and unity, most people are going to agree with those sentiments. A number of individuals will reiterate the same sentiments over and over again. Once the “moment” passes, unless people experienced a traumatizing event, most are going to come down from whatever emotional high they had and carry on as though nothing had happened or nothing was said. It is only once a political leader repeatedly calls for civility and unity over and over again as he practices civility and unity that his words will have an impact. Cultivating an environment of civility and unity requires leaders to constantly turn to civility and unity whenever there is a conflict of interests. It requires leadership to steer followers toward civility and unity whenever their interests conflict with the interests of others.
Ultimately, one of the most important things a leader does is set standards. When a leader shapes the actions, words, and thoughts of others through verbal instructions or behavioral corrections, that leader is setting and enforcing standards. When leadership establishes what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, that leadership creates institutional standards. By establishing standards as individuals and leaders of institutions, leaders are encouraging others to act certain ways. If political leaders want civility and unity instead of division and violence, they must set standards as the mentors of emerging leaders and the administrators of political institutions. Regrettably, there are no standards in the polarizing dysfunction of the current political system. “Anything goes” is the mantra of modern politics. As time goes on, the lack of political standard bearers, i.e. those leaders who continually inspire higher standards in others, is allowing the caustic nature of divisive politics to eat away at the civility modern Americans are accustomed to. Violence is a symptom of this erosion and the inevitable consequence.
Read old posts