Director’s Log | December 2019

All I Want for Christmas Is New Brake Pads

I’m dreaming of a — polite Christmas.

As we head into 2020, I’m nervous.

Pearce Godwin, the North Carolinian who heads up the national Listen First Project and who helped IEI earlier this year as we launched our Civic Conversations Series, keeps up with polling in the U.S. and reports some frightening numbers.

The latest installment of a poll called “Civility in America” shows that Americans have an average of 10.2 “uncivil” interactions a week. This year’s polls shows 93 percent of Americans believe incivility is a problem; 68 percent believe it is a major problem.

However bad you may think it is, it may be getting worse. On the political front, one survey shows some members of our two parties moving from distrust to hatred: 15 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats believe the country would be better off if members of the opposite party “just died,” and about 14 percent of Republicans and 18 percent of Democrats said that violence might be justified if the other party’s nominee was elected president.

What’s the problem? Not too surprisingly, 57 percent of Americans blame social media more than anything else: it provides us a platform to be mean without looking someone in the eye. Next in the poll is “the White House,” followed by “politicians in general,” “the news media,” and, a bit further down the list, “Hollywood celebrities.”

So as we go into a contentious election year, how can we look to recover from our addiction to infliction of verbal harm? The first step to recovery is admitting we have a problem. Check.

Then we need to believe something can be done. According to the “Civility in America” poll, 86 percent of us believe it “is possible to disagree in a civil way.”

Just to be clear, I am not advocating for surrender of anybody’s principles. We will never agree on everything, and let’s face it, life without disagreement would be boring. Friction slows us down and forces us to think. But when you get to the point where it’s metal on metal, sparks fly and it’s time to find some new brake pads.

I’d ask for us to consider doing three simple things – three new brake pads to cushion our contempt:

  1. Admit it is possible that the beliefs of the person you disagree with are sincerely felt (even if you are convinced they are wrong).
  2. Admit that agreeing on something is better than agreeing on nothing, and doing something together is better than throwing grenades at each other.
  3. Start by finding one thing you can agree on – even if it is small — and get to work on that.

But how do you start? Some 62 percent of us say if an organization existed that made it easier for people to get involved in the fight against incivility, they would join it.

Fortunately, there are organizations doing work like this nationally. Besides the great work of the Listen First project, an organization called Better Angels is very specifically focusing on bringing together Republicans and Democrats into frank conversations. The nonpartisan National Institute for Civil Discourse is seeking to build coalitions for change.

At the Institute for Emerging Issues, we’re doing our part in North Carolina. We’re working with 20 teams in North Carolina who have agreed to come together across lines of divide to take on problems they’re facing in their backyards. And we’re encouraging groups of people across the state to start taking intentional steps to have “civic conversations.” We hosted our first-ever ReCONNECT NC Day this past August with two dozen conversations across the state. We’re encouraging ongoing conversations and making available online resources. We’ve asked Darryl Lester on our staff to help us help you.

Who’s most likely to get excited about this work? According to polling, people from Gen Z or millennials, parents with children under 18, and African Americans. Maybe that’s where you find the first few participants in your community’s efforts.

But there are bunches of people beyond those groups as well. Pretty much anyone who dreams of a polite Christmas.

Sing it with me:

I’m dreaming of a polite Christmas,

Just like the ones we used to know –

Where we all light votives,

And ascribe good motives

To everyone, both friends and foes.


In the new year let’s not miss this bus

Can’t we all just de-escalate

Listen first, be civil, don’t hate

Get the meanness out of our state!