Can we disagree yet find common ground?

It is listening, paying attention and being calm and fair in discussion over contentious topics. It is not trash-talking, name-calling, gossiping or passing the buck.

Civility: It’s a concept most think they are familiar with. It is synonymous with courtesy and politeness. It includes good manners and the absence of rudeness.

But in the midst of all that is stirring, and has stirred, politically across the state and nation in the last couple of years, there is a deeper examination underway of civility’s intersection with democracy and how we, as a people, live within its definition. How can we differ and disagree without letting larger, splintering forces rip apart our democracy? One clear takeaway is that nothing is clear.

The pursuit of civility often raises more questions than it offers answers.

And perhaps the biggest question of all is: At a time when communities and the country are often pushed and pulled toward polar extremes on controversial issues and topics, can we strongly disagree with one another yet seek to pursue and preserve a much larger tract of common ground?

It’s a question members of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh community and the greater Oshkosh community are examining as they work hard to strengthen this nexus of civility and democracy.

Civility in the community

These days, civility is the buzzword in communities across the country and on campuses like UW Oshkosh.

Perhaps the call for civil behavior is a symptom of the politically fueled times and the nationwide trend has seeped into our cities and towns. Others argue that civility creeping its way into communities and institutions is not a trend at all, but instead something that’s always been there.

Oshkosh’s Civility Project, led by the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation, is a community-based initiative that pledges to “build a stronger and more diverse community by actively sharing our ideas and opinions with others in thoughtful and considerate ways.”

The project has spread into schools, businesses and book clubs. More than 800 community members have pledged to be a part of the initiative since its inception last year and vow to uphold nine principles rooted in the original golden rule—treat others how you’d like to be treated, respectfully.

“I feel a deep connection to the project’s language and message,” said Liz Hebbe, one of the core team members of the Oshkosh Civility Project. “The nine principles make sense and are easy to support. As members of a successful community, we have a responsibility to raise the bar on civility.”

The Oshkosh Civility Project, aimed at encouraging better practices of interpersonal communication, is modeled after a campaign that originated in 2003 in Duluth, Minn. In 2009, in Truckee, Calif., a similar initiative had the same goals: Get people talking, but also get them listening and respecting each other’s perspectives and diverse backgrounds; strike a better balance between free speech rights and responsibilities.

“Being good is good for you,” said P.M. Forni, Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct author and professor who has become one of the nation’s leading civility scientists.

Forni also is the cofounder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, an initiative developed in 1997 that assesses the significance of civility, manners and politeness in contemporary society. He spoke at UW Oshkosh in early 2011.

Civility on campus

UW Oshkosh’s on-campus civility initiative, CivilityWorks, is similar to and is governed by the same principles and practices embraced by the citywide initiative. It is a grassroots effort to strengthen and enhance every aspect of working, studying and interacting with others. It was spearheaded by Chancellor Richard H. Wells and is now coordinated by Tom Grogan, special assistant to the Chancellor.

“What it really means is: You speak up, you show up, you give encouragement, you show support to colleagues,” Grogan said. “Peer-to-peer exchange is so powerful.”

CivilityWorks, founded in late 2011, facilitates on-campus events and discussions for anyone who’d like to be involved. An opt-in email listserve also is a component to encourage conversation throughout the campus community.

“Civility isn’t new. It’s just that we have to remind ourselves when things are challenging to stop, look and listen,” said Carleen Vande Zande, UW Oshkosh assistant vice chancellor for curricular affairs and student academic achievement.

In this heated—and in Wisconsin, continuous—election cycle, there are the every-segment attack ads on TV and over-the-top Facebook posts, noxious yard signs, never-ending robo calls, oversized buttons and continuous “junk” mail, many of which skew negative.

A civil nation?

All of the negativity is a catalyst for Americans to make changes through civilized action.

Civility, like democracy, is a system of compromise. In any situation, compromise—a middle, the gray area, common ground—is so very hard to find.

“I’m not so sure reaching the center is the place to be. My world doesn’t divide into polar poles,” said David Siemers, UW Oshkosh political science professor.

But with the at-your-fingertips exchange of information that happens in today’s world paired with the billions of dollars spent on elections these days, the “complex” understanding of the issues—mostly polarized—comes from 30-second attack advertisements, in 140 characters or less, via the constant news ticker of your News Organization of Choice.

That—the inability to turn it off, to back away—is what fuels the decision to pick a very extreme side and then have to subsequently defend it. The 24-hour news cycle and information can’t be turned off.

“It’s terrible for getting a deep, complex understanding of the world,” Siemers said. “If politics are about money, as they seem to be, whoever raises the most is doing well.”

The ability to raise the funds, Siemers said, is what allows for candidates to be loud with their messaging. Money, not necessarily a strong voice or a civil opinion, is what allows for swamping the masses with messaging.

“Communication is so instant, access to so much news and many opinions and voices does not stop,” Vande Zande said. “Giving students opportunities for reasoned dialog is something to be preserved.”

Together, Siemers and Vande Zande advocate for exactly that as leaders of UW Oshkosh’s American Democracy Project (ADP), an initiative focused on higher education’s role in preparing the next generation of informed, engaged citizens.

The project at UW Oshkosh began in 2003 and offers a wide array of forums for members of the campus community to gather and discuss.

Siemers described the nonpartisan ADP as “students leading students to a realistic and full understanding of American politics.” It’s giving students a chance to learn the facts and figure out a stance, Siemers said.

“Part of the problem is that our political system is set up so you have to pick a side,” said Samantha Zinth, a UW Oshkosh master’s student studying educational leadership. Zinth also is involved with CivilityWorks. “There are pieces of things people would cross the aisle on, but we are conditioned to say ‘you are on one side or the other.’ If we stop looking at it as left-wing, right-wing, there is more room for common understanding.”

Finding common ground is possible, but sometimes difficult, said Tony Palmeri, professor of communication at UW Oshkosh.

“Every individual has to find others with like opinions. People have to find a way to unite, that’s social change,” Palmeri said.

The tricky part, though, is each generation must define civility—and address how to find common ground—for themselves.

“We need citizenship education. And, a huge part of that education has to be the idea that being a good citizen is more than voting. It’s working with other people and looking for productive ways to find problems and solve them,” Palmeri said.

Yes, there is a spot for protest signs and flag-waving, for those who want to occupy, recall and/or just vote; there’s a place for discourse and a place for disappointment, especially on a university campus like UW Oshkosh.

“A college is a great place to practice this stuff. It’s a meeting of all kinds of people,” Siemers said. “Within reason, we reward dialog. It would be much less interesting with one point of view. That, of course, does not mean everyone agrees.”

“Disagreements are a part of life,” Siemers added.

From everyday quarrels about parenting and relationships to the big geo-political issues, disagreements happen.

“I think it’s interesting to engage with people who don’t think like you do,” Zinth said. “It helps you better understand your own environment and hear others.”

Zinth, like many, admits she actually welcomes discussion among family and friends who don’t necessarily agree with her. She believes in the civil exchange of thoughts, where feelings are actually considered and voices are heard, she said. For Zinth, it really starts with opening her ears to listen.

“Just because you believe in something doesn’t mean you need to put someone else down for not believing the same thing,” Zinth said. “Certainly we need a position, but you can do it in a way that doesn’t attack.”

Others, like Amanda (Kowald) Bain ‘02, program associate from the UW Oshkosh Center for New Learning, and one of the founding members of CivilityWorks, agrees.

“If you discuss an actual issue, you’ll find some commonalities. We aren’t going to change each other’s minds and that’s OK. People don’t have to change, either. It’s good to have diversity,” Bain said. “People in a group really need to find what they agree on and branch out from there.”

Civility initiatives—both on campus and throughout the nation—aren’t necessarily aimed at making something better. Instead, their aim is to proactively encourage the conversation, lay out the rules, and in the case of Oshkosh’s city-wide campaign to “Speak your Peace.”

“So much of the discussion of civility is clouded by myth. Most change happens through a clash,” Palmeri said.

He argues that sometimes finding middle ground, something in common, doesn’t result in civility at all.

“As a group, you find your voice together … that’s when common ground is found. And historically, the groups that find common ground won’t look civil, they will look angry,” Palmeri said.

Finding a middle-point is something that’s been practiced and taught on college campuses throughout history, Vande Zande said.

“We must preserve this work and not let it get pushed to the back with our competing agendas,” Vande Zande said. “This work—to teach civility—has been a part of the purpose of education since ancient Greece. Through different eras of time, prepping people to be citizens has been at the heart of higher education.”

But how?

Well, it starts with distinguishing between opinions and facts, educators agree. Siemers recommends finding facts and using voice to articulate them. Palmeri teaches his students to lead rational arguments. Vande Zande encourages and welcomes dialog, which she defines as “something that brings a lot of ideas together.”

Siemers knows, and teaches, that part of having an open and honest dialog is to come to grips with the fact that everyone isn’t always going to agree. Instead, he encourages students to learn the facts in any way possible.

“Once in the realm of factual evidence, you’re in a less contestable realm. Opinions are a by-the-seat-of-your-pants reaction; we want to move beyond this in all ways,” he said.

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