President Donald Trump didn’t invent rudeness.
He may be the most high-profile person to regularly resort to insults to make a point, but he’s hardly the first and only one to do so. In fact, Clinton resident Cathy Whitmire said she believes that incivility has crept into all levels of the national discourse and lexicon for a long time.
“It didn’t just happen in the last year or last decade,” she said. “It’s been a slow slide.”
Whitmire and other Whidbey Island residents say they are concerned with the national “habit,” so much so that they started a group earlier this year called “Civility First.” Their hope is to ignite a grassroots movement to promote courteous dialogue, starting with the “Civility First Pledge” and workshops.
The group is nonpolitical. They don’t talk about the president or his Tweets, but focus on the concept of civility, Whitmire said. It’s also nonpartisan. Members include liberal Democrats from the South Whidbey and conservative Republicans from North Whidbey.
While Whitmire represents the liberal side of the spectrum, one of the conservative voices in the group is Oak Harbor Councilman Jim Campbell.
Whitmire said she and her husband asked Campbell to join the effort because they know him as someone who’s willing to listen to ideas and opinions other than his own. For the past 12 years or so, he’s asked citizens to join him for coffee Thursday mornings to talk about any subject.
Campbell said he agrees that an unprecedented wave of incivility has swept the nation.
“It’s not just leadership. It’s everyone,” he said. “It’s something that is catching on. For some reason or another, people like to be in conflict all the time.”
He said he thinks that the Internet is partly to blame. A sense of anger and meanness flourishes online, he said, because it’s easy to say terrible things if you’re anonymous; people are not so bold when they’re face-to-face.
The pledge calls for people to treat others with kindness and respect. It also focuses on the importance of listening to others. Democracy depends on the sharing of ideas, Whitmire said; to share ideas, people have to be willing to listen to those they disagree with.
“As we listen, we can look for the bigger story, the deeper story,” she said. “We can see other people and begin to see what we have in common.”
Although they don’t point fingers, Whitmire and Campbell agree that incivility in the nation has gotten worse recently. Whether it’s online or from politicians, it seems that uncivil discourse is becoming normalized.
Whitmire said every time she tells someone about Civility First, they share a story that illustrates how bad it’s gotten. People tell her they avoid family reunions or stopped talking to friends because of political differences.
Whitmire and Campbell remain optimistic, however.
Members of Civility First put up a booth at the Island County Fair and had 452 conversations with people interested in the group’s message. They’ve received invitations to hold workshops at various political and social groups.
The first workshop was held Family Bible Church in Oak Harbor, which is the church Campbell attends. He admits to being pleasantly surprised at how receptive everyone at the church was to the conversation.
Whitmire said she’s hoping the group will be part of a movement that will grow.
“We don’t want this bad habit to become part of who we are,” she said. “We think we’re better than this.”
• More information and the Civility First Pledge is online at www.civilityfirst.org