Civility is big this year. A new Pew poll shows a majority of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, think the way President Donald Trump talks is “concerning” and “embarrassing” — not the notes you want jotted at the bottom of your annual review. And then here in Dallas we have just elected a new mayor who is making civility his own personal Job No. 1.
I’m not sure how many direct parallels we can draw between the civility crisis in Washington and our own peccadillo. Most of the concern and embarrassment that people feel for the nation’s capital, according to the Pew poll, seem to be generated by the person at the top and the way he behaves toward people he thinks are beneath him. Our own alleged civility deficit has to do with past members of the City Council, now voted out, and the way they behaved toward the mayor.
But we can safely say this: No matter which direction it comes from or how it works on a day-to-day basis, people probably take incivility in government and politics as a symptom of deeper dysfunction. Most of us figure if we absolutely cannot come to a civil, non-screaming compromise with a neighbor on when and how to put out the trash, then somebody’s a nutcase. And it’s not us.
Sometimes the answer is a whole lot of just keeping your mouth shut and letting things slide a little. As a very longtime observer of our own local government scene in Dallas, I have hopes, fears and a couple of hints to offer to our new mayor on this score. A big one is about being thin-skinned.
During the campaign, Eric Johnson showed a penchant for blocking people on social media if they said things about him he didn’t like. That might be OK for a 13-year-old, but if the new mayor is really serious about promoting a culture of civility, he needs to be less of a baby.
Another thing that promotes a lot of incivility is arrogance. Arrogance makes people mad. During the campaign season, Johnson had a tendency to blow off audiences he considered too small or not important enough by not showing up, while the other candidates somehow managed to make it.
Once there, he blew off questions he seemed to think beneath him. At one forum he was asked what he intended to do as mayor about the city’s stray dog problem, and his answer, almost sneering in tone, was that he would probably have bigger things to worry about.
Technically, he was right. Doing something about stray dogs is the city manager’s lookout. The mayor’s job is something else. I’ve never been sure exactly what. But probably not stray dogs. The point, however, is this: If a person asks the mayor about stray dogs, then stray dogs are the most important issue in that person’s life as a citizen of the city. At the very least, the mayor could afford not to be jerk about it, especially given Job No. 1. Being a jerk, after all, is a major cause of incivility.
An even bigger one, however, is duplicity, and we should give Johnson a little bit of breathing room on that one. He has been the mayor for only a few days, so he really hasn’t had time yet to do anything officially duplicitous. He doesn’t have an exactly sterling private reputation for shooting straight with people, but we should allow that issue to develop naturally in the spotlight of public office.
A very big cause of incivility in the past was duplicity and under-the-table dealing at City Hall. One example was the effort to give the city’s beleaguered 277-acre exposition park in South Dallas, Fair Park, to a friend of the mayor. Nothing causes incivility like trying to give large city parks to friends of the mayor.
There was major blowback to the Fair Park giveaway from certain members of the previous council, now voted out, whom I am tempted to dub retrospectively the uncivilati, even though even I think calling them that is unfair. My own rule of thumb is that it’s OK to be uncivil if it’s funny. Uncivilati — that’s funny, right? Well, I thought it was. Shows you how civil I am. But really, what does civil even mean?
Is it uncivil, for example, to examine civil law and maybe even threaten to go to civil court to stop the giving away of a large city park to a friend of the mayor? Civil law and civil court: That’s two civils. Seems pretty civil to me. What was uncivil was trying to give away a large city park to a friend of the mayor.
General sneakiness is another big cause of incivility, as when a former city manager promised the city council not to allow gas drilling in city parks and then went to work secretly to allow gas drilling in city parks. To go back to me, my neighbor and the trash thing, the gas drilling contretemps was like my telling my neighbor, “OK, Janel, I promise, I won’t put the trash out until Thursday morning, and I won’t put it by your son Chris’ car.” Then I sneak out Wednesday night and put it by her son Chris’ car. She’s going to be uncivil with me. As she should be. As will her son, Chris. Of course.
So the hint there for the new mayor is this: If you want people to be civil with you, don’t be sneaky with them. Tell people the truth. Don’t pull cards out of your cuffs.
That brings us to the biggest one, which is dealing straight with people. A major source of incivility on the previous council was a tendency by the mayor and his posse to sit on public information that made them look bad. That was the whole story, still unresolved, behind the city’s tourism bureau, now called VisitDallas because mashing two words together into one is so hip.
The uncivilati had suspected for some time that the tourism bureau was a big, fat money loser that lived high on the tax-dollar hog while accomplishing next to zilch. For a year the uncivilati asked politely for financial records, but they were told they were being uncivil. When they demanded the records, they were painted as uncivil as hell. And I think they were, kind of. But that gets us back to that question of the word, civil, and what it means.
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary provides a number of synonyms or close synonyms to help us understand what civil is supposed to mean: “orderly, well-governed, civilized, educated, refined, sober, decent, grave, humane, gentle, polite.” Notable for their absence from that list are: “gullible, stupid, passive, cowardly, self-abasing, idiotic.”
Then, once we have all that down, the question would be: When should we be civil? Under what circumstances is civility the appropriate response?
Let’s say I find out the mayor is trying to do me out of my house and give it to a friend of his. Should my response be orderly, well-governed and civilized? Or I learn that the city manager, who promised me she would not allow anyone to drill for gas under my house, has been secretly setting up a deal to allow gas drilling under my house. Do I need to be educated, refined and sober in my response? Grave, humane, gentle and polite? Fat chance.
I say fat chance, because, guess what? Civility is a two-way street. Janel is not going to be civil with me — neither will Chris — if I’m a gigantic lying, cheating pants-on-fire jerk. Pants-on-fire jerks don’t deserve civility, because they are not civil. Honesty, respect and fair play are preconditions for civility, without which there can be no civility. Smiling and acting all polite and meek and mild to someone who is robbing you is not civility. It’s a trick to get the guy off his guard so you can grab his hair and kill him. Dogs know that.
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The problem with civility is that the term and the concept are so easily misused and misrepresented. The accusation is too easily used to shut people up when the accuser is to blame for violating the moral precursors. I hope we’re not in for a lot of that.
A final note, something of which you should take note: None of Johnson’s many opponents in the general election endorsed him in the runoff. I have spoken with only one of them — not a good sample. The defeated opponent would talk to me about it only on a not-for-attribution basis. The opponent feared vindictiveness from Johnson. The opponent told me, “I would never endorse Eric Johnson for anything, because I honestly think he is an asshole.”
Even though my sample is paltry, I feel OK about mentioning it here, because it confirms a pattern of behavior that was quite public during the campaign. Johnson made patently false accusations of cheating — penny-ante cheating like pulling up campaign signs or acting up at polling places — that should have been beneath him, even if true. He came across as small, oh-so-thin-skinned, and, well, an asshole.
So there is the challenge. Can a thin-skinned asshole so change his act, so reinvent himself in the public glare as to make himself a true disciple of the true meaning of civility? I know what I think about the one in Washington. Here in Dallas, the jury is out.