The charm offensive

December, 2011

South Australian premier Jay Weatherill has called for greater civility in parliament but are our politicians a lost cause? Nigel Hopkins reports.

The charm offensive

One of the most depressing sights on television, fortunately mostly witnessed only by insomniacs, is the Federal Parliament Question Time repeated late at night on the ABC.

The dreadful ravings of vile politicians full of hate and blood lust are disheartening viewing when you consider the important matters of state that should be of concern to us all. It’s not much better with the local mob, either.

Where is the civilised, reasoned debate that gets to the heart of issues and seeks to resolve them? How can we take today’s politicians seriously? Why do we put up with what, frankly, amounts to a lack of civility in the way they deal with each other –
and with us?

Curiously, it has taken South Australia’s new premier, Jay Weatherill, to display some sensitivity to this issue, using his first Question Time to make a call for greater civility and respect between members of Parliament: “Civility is perhaps a quaint notion but civility in Parliament is something we should always strive to uphold,” he said.

Of course, this won’t suit the media. Already there have been media mutterings about Weatherill being a bit boring, at least when compared with the likes of Kevin Foley.

But this lack of civility – formal politeness and courtesy in behaviour or speech – is not confined just to our politicians. It is a malaise that has crept into everyday dealings across our community.

Take this real life example:

“We’re outside a busy train station on a drizzly morning. Three overcrowded buses pull up at the bus stop at the same time. Dozens of commuters pour out, jostling with bags and half-erected umbrellas. This huge crowd moves as one mass towards the station entrance. An older man is trying to walk against the flow, saying, ‘Excuse me, excuse me,’ as he inevitably bumps into people in the crowd. Suddenly, one of the commuters erupts in anger, ‘Fucking wanker! Where the fuck do you think you’re going?’ The older man says nothing and continues to push through the crowd to his bus. Nobody says anything. Nobody intervenes.”

That’s from the field notes made during research into a report commissioned by the UK’s Young Foundation titled Charm Offensive – Cultivating civility in 21st Century Britain.

While it could be argued that Britain is especially in need of civility and charm following its civil riots in August this year, the report applies just as pertinently to Australia. Coincidentally, the director of the Young Foundation is former South Australian Thinker in Residence Geoff Mulgan.

Co-funded by Britain’s Arts and Humanities Council and the Economic and Social Research Council, the report found that far from being a thing of the past, civility is something that people still care deeply about wherever they live, but it warns that long-term trends are making civility hard to maintain. It brings together what is known about civility from a range of disciplines and the findings of new empirical research undertaken in very different areas.

It argues that civility is the largely invisible “glue” that holds communities together and that experiences of incivility cause hurt, stress and deeper social problems, and have a bigger impact on people’s sense of social health than crime statistics.

Perhaps most significantly, it shows that civility operates on a reciprocal basis and that it is contagious. Yet people, while quick to see incivility in others, seem far less aware of how their own behaviour can offend.

While the report suggests changes in emphasis in national and local policy, including a better balance between punitive measures and those which actively encourage civility, it concludes that we are all best placed to spread civility through being aware of how we conduct our daily lives.

Although we are discomforted and become stressed when people are rude, thoughtless or act aggressively towards us, the report asks: “What do we know about civility?”

The report seeks to find out. First, it asks whether civility matters, finding that it does for pretty much every group in society.
Second, it asks if levels of civility are changing; are we getting ruder? Its research confirms that although civility is perceived to be deteriorating, there is no objective evidence for this. By some standards behaviour is better than a generation or two ago, with much less casual violence or racism, but in other respects life does appear to be less civil.

Third, it asks what patterns can be found and whether there are particularly uncivil places. Fourth, it asks what can be done to improve civility, concluding that there are many practical steps that can be taken to shape behaviour, rewarding the good and constraining the bad at the specific times and places where things can go awry.

“All of us want to be able to walk freely around our towns and cities without fear of being abused, jostled, pushed or inconvenienced. No one wants to be on the receiving end of road rage or air rage or any other kind of rage,” the report says.

“Most people think that standards have declined, and that at some point in the past others were more courteous than they are today. There is no shortage of examples of bad behaviour, from the actions of some celebrities to concerns about the conduct of teenagers.

“Meanwhile, alarmist views are encouraged by newspapers, which tend to respond to public interest in this topic with sweeping generalisations that magnify the bad and drown out the good. We wanted to get beneath these generalisations to explore what is really happening.”

The researchers conclude that civility is about much more than being polite. It is not just about being tolerant either; living in changing societies requires that we do more than just passively ‘tolerate’ the changes that are taking place around us. It involves mindfully adapting our own behaviour in the light of others’ needs. They regard civility as a benchmark, setting the standard for what most people see as a decent way to deal
with others.

“It is clear that simple acts of incivility can have equally powerful effects on our wellbeing. People on the street were able to relate, often with detailed precision, their encounters with incivility: the bad looks they had received, the annoying person with the headphones or the grumpy responses from passers-by. Often they described feelings which seemed completely out of proportion: loss of face, shame, mortification, burning up inside.”

Some people spoke about incivility making them feel afraid and therefore less trusting, making them “keep themselves to themselves,” hide in the safety of their homes and their immediate families. The triggers for this type of isolation were very often quite banal: unfriendly or cliquey neighbours, young people who, while not necessarily threatening or aggressive, did not seem to care for or respect their elders.

On the other hand, civil behaviour makes us feel better about ourselves and where we live.

Studies show that people who behave with civility are more likely to be happy. Active civility, in the form of kindness or charitable behaviour, is personally rewarding, providing stress relief and boosting self-confidence.

What’s more, MRI scans have shown that civil actions stimulate similar areas of the brain as experiences such as falling in love or holding a baby. How about that, Mr Weatherill? That would make for an interesting Question Time?

Tags: premier, jay weatherill, nigel hopkins, question time, civility

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