Guest Editorial: Civility Can Make the Difference

As South Carolina works to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, anyone who has observed political discussion online, or even during many official government meetings knows that society is facing another harmful outbreak — incivility in government — personal attacks, infighting, and even threats of violence in the worst cases.

Our nation and our state have entered an era where threatening, mocking, deriding or dismissing our fellow citizens is the norm. Gone are the days when we could hope that our ideas would be thoughtfully discussed, even when our proposals might lose in a vote. In today’s world, compromise and collaboration have become four-letter words. Pithy insults have become more celebrated than deliberation and solutions.

Many of our local elected leaders and local government staff have experienced this rapid decline in discourse personally. While civility breakdowns at the national level gain the most attention in the news, many of the people who attend meetings at their city hall can tell you the same is now happening at the local level. Incivility can come from residents, from anonymous online trolls, or even from local elected officials themselves.

The good news is that local governments innovate. They solve problems. They act to get the critical jobs done. That’s why I’m hopeful that our local governments can lead the way in repairing our broken discourse, and chart a course back to governing without malice, and disagreeing 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 officials chart that course.

Last year, the Municipal Association’s board of directors decided to make restoring civility a top priority for the organization. Since then we have been working to offer our elected officials the resources, workshops and other tools that will help them listen, learn and de-escalate heated situations. We want our cities and towns to exemplify good governance and civil behavior.

I’m especially pleased with our initiative to develop civility pledges for local government. It includes a detailed version that city councils can adopt as a resolution to reaffirm their commitment to civil discourse and a short version they can be added as a reminder to the top of meeting agenda documents.

By drawing attention to the issue, and stating directly and officially that this is a problem that requires our attention — not something to sweep under the rug — we aim to get people collaborating and to get political discussion in our state back on track.

The English poet Lady Mary Montagu once wrote that 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 gets put to the test every time a disagreement happens in a city council meeting or on Facebook, but these tests give us excellent opportunities for leadership and example-setting.

South Carolina’s cities and towns can be the leaders in building a stronger, more prosperous state by advocating for civil engagement, respecting others and their viewpoints, and finding solutions for the betterment of every city and town. Civility makes the difference.

Todd Glover is the Executive Director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina.

Contact us: (803) 767-5711 | P.O. Box 675, Blythewood, SC 29016 | [email protected]