How incivility and ‘manufacturing enemies’ is dangerous to political discourse
© Stefani Reynolds

Incivility has exploded today. The United States has lost all manner of decorum. Crass and gross language has become routine. Stereotypes abound. A photo sets off a firestorm of epithets and derisive comments. A new member of Congress used gross profanity and demeaned both the Presidency and the office to which she took an oath.

Individuals quickly text and tweet without full knowledge of events. Name-calling has become prevalent: people are called ‘deplorables’ and reprehensible. Quick judgments are made and the media – the press and television – report stories without validating the facts and getting them right. People wonder why trust in the media is weakened or lost.

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What are the causes? In a KRC poll on incivility, 69 percent and 59 percent indicated that the internet/social media and news media, respectively, are the cause of incivility. Politicians lead the list at 75 percent. Inaccurate or politically biased reports create divisions -- some intended. Silo thinking and the lack of dialogue on social media and cable are a problem.

This toxic atmosphere destroys the ability to listen and talk to each other. We resist entering into a civil dialogue with those who have different perspectives from our own.

We have fallen into manufacturing ‘enemies.’ We turn people with different viewpoints or political dispositions into enemies. Not rivals or opponents or adversaries – but enemies. This disdain moves beyond the ability to engage in civil discourse, which is the foundation for a democratic republic and self-government. Conflicts and differing opinions are endemic to democracies.

Adam Kahane coined a word, “enemyfy,” in his book, “Collaborating With the Enemy.” We think and act as if “the people we are dealing with are our enemies – people who are the cause of our problems and hurting us" and threats to our way-of-life, security or safety. Opponents and rivals are one thing, but with enemies, individuals want to destroy them through labeling and character assassination.

“Enemyfying” others can feel righteous and even heroic. It is comforting because it reassures those who categorize others that they are not responsible for the issues or difficulties. Stamping others as enemies is quite simple -- ‘We are right, they are wrong’ or ‘We are moral, they are not.’ Have you heard that from politicians lately?

However, there is a problem. Complex issues usually do not have simple solutions, nor are one-dimensional analyses the answer. In addition, there is a matter of constitutional rights and people's right to free speech even if it is foolish, wrong or irritating.

‘Enemyfying’ obscures issues and contexts as well as distorts the challenges society faces. Verbal rock throwing actually destroys diversity – the diversity of thought and ideas. Diversity is more than ethnicity, race and other demographics: it also concerns thought, opinions, interpretations and ideas all essential for problem solving.

Disagreement is not ‘enemyfying’: it is a natural and even desired response when decisions and options are on the table. It can clarify positions and open doors to new or revised perspectives. Compassion and empathy, even if agreement is not present, can lead to greater understanding of others and their viewpoints. Understanding why people think and feel the way they do increases tolerance.

Alienation is a corrupting influence and a deterrent to finding areas of agreement, if any, or simply understanding the principles and attitudes of others. Polarization and fragmentation increase through ‘enemyfying’ and stifle participation and self-expression. Dampening citizen’s expression is dangerous to the electoral process and democracy in general.

‘Enemyfying’ is not strictly a conservative or liberal ploy. It is evident and practiced in the Republican or Democratic parties, as well as other public organizations or venues.

Dialogue is essential in a democracy. Without it, we have no democracy. Making enemies of fellow citizens with different viewpoints takes care of that.

George A. Goens, Ph.D. is an educator, an expert on leadership and the author of nine books, including the upcoming, “Civility Lost: The Media, Politics, and Education.”