The Tragedy in Tucson

This is not in any way a political blog but I would be remiss in light of the connection with incivility, to not mention the terrible shooting in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday that critically injured U.S. Representative, Gabrielle Giffords, killed six, and injured another thirteen. It is unclear at this time what were the motivations of the perpetrator but, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed out in his op-ed Sunday morning (9 January 2011), the event itself seemed almost unsurprising as political tensions mounted in the U.S.A.

Krugman places blame for the attack on the right wing but, it seems that political incivility is as much a cultural problem as something that can be laid at the feet of a specific politician. In fact, according to Krugman’s article, threats against politicians across the spectrum have increased 300% since the 2008 elections.

In the same article cited above, Krugman argues that these shootings were not the result of incivility, but instead of specific eliminationist rhetoric. However, I think he underestimates the power of civility. Practicing greater civility encourages seeing opponents as people instead of representatives of one’s fears or frustrations. Incivility may not directly lead to tragedies like the one in Tucson, but it does help to create a climate where people become unable to see past political ideas they despise to the person behind them.

The evidence shows that incivility within workplaces weakens a culture of respect. It lowers the barriers that inhibit abuse and violence. Dismissing the perpetrator as mentally unbalanced does not absolve caustic rhetoric: people with excellent mental health do not commit mass murder. Those who engage in violent rhetoric are responsible for considering the disposition of mentally unbalanced people in their audience.

In Tucson, people were killed and critically injured in the course of doing their work. It is one thing to insist upon justice for the perpetrator. It is a more serious commitment to insist upon a culture of civility and respect for which everyone is accountable.

Are you confident that your employer is taking effective action to promote civility at work?

What can you do today to further that value in your encounters with people?

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