As South Carolina struggles to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, anyone who has observed political discussions online or watched many official government meetings knows that society is facing another harmful epidemic: the incivility in government – personal attacks, infighting and even threats of violence.
Our nation and our state have entered an era where threatening, mocking, ridiculing or rejecting our fellow citizens is the norm. Gone are the days when we could hope that our ideas would be thoughtfully discussed, even if our proposals might lose in a vote. In today’s world, compromise and collaboration have become four-letter words. Lapidary insults have become more celebrated than deliberations and solutions.
Many of our local elected officials and local government staff have personally experienced this rapid decline in discourse. While civil breakdowns on a national level get the most attention in the news, many who attend meetings at their town hall can tell you that the same is happening on a local level. Rudeness can come from residents, anonymous online trolls or local elected officials themselves.
The good news is that local governments are innovating. They solve problems. They act to accomplish the critical jobs. That’s why I hope our local governments can lead the way in fixing our broken speech. We can chart the course back to non-malicious governance. You can disagree without being disagreeable.
As the advocacy organization for our state’s 271 cities and towns, the Municipal Association of South Carolina intends to help local authorities chart that course.
Last year, our Board of Directors decided to make restoring civility a top priority for the organization. Since then, we have strived to provide our elected officials with resources, workshops and other tools that will allow them to listen, learn and defuse difficult situations. We want our cities and towns to exemplify good governance and civic behavior.
I am particularly pleased with our initiative to develop civility pledges for local governments. It includes a long version that councils can adopt as a resolution to reaffirm their commitment to civil discourse and a short version that can be added as a reminder at the top of meeting agenda documents.
By bringing attention to the issue and directly and officially stating that it is an issue that needs our attention – not something to be swept under the rug – we aim to get people to collaborate and put back on tracks the political discussion in our state.
English poet Lady Mary Montagu once wrote, “Civility costs nothing and buys everything.” She was right.
Civility is the difference between conversation and controversy, between a friendship and a falling out. It is tested every time a disagreement arises in a city council meeting or on Facebook, but these tests provide us with great opportunities for leadership and example.
South Carolina cities and towns aim to be leaders in building a stronger, more prosperous state by advocating for civic engagement, respecting others and their perspectives, and finding solutions for the improvement of each town and village. Civility makes the difference.
Todd Glover is executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina.