Alan Wartes’ Civility Pledge
A Personal Pledge of Civility, by Alan Wartes
If all Americans could agree on one statement, it might be this: Our nation is in trouble. We are in trouble on numerous fronts—a persistent pandemic (and its unpredictable social, economic, and political fallout); economic instability and inequality; racial tension; climate change; energy insecurity; immigration uncertainties; escalating tensions with foreign adversaries; fraying international alliances—just to name a few. Any one of these could keep us up at night and warrant our undivided attention.
But as daunting as these challenges are, there is another that dwarfs them all—because it threatens to incapacitate any meaningful effort to solve them. I’m talking about the growing inability of Americans to be in the same room with each other, much less cooperate and collaborate—or even commiserate—on urgent matters of importance to us all.
In science, a random error occurs when somebody inaccurately records a measurement. Given enough sound data points, the damage is slight. A systemic error, on the other hand, happens because the measurement tools themselves are flawed or broken—and all the data are wrong. Left uncorrected, the entire experiment is in jeopardy.
Democracy—as history proves—can survive ordinary random errors. The danger we face today is that widespread incivility has become a glaring systemic error that threatens everything. Any researcher will tell you that finding and fixing systemic errors is not easy. It requires one to challenge assumptions, examine beliefs, and be willing to admit mistakes. That is now precisely the work we must commit to, if we want the Republic to survive.
Recent headlines have revealed that our mountain community is not immune to uncivil discourse and the systemic error of divisive hostility. We are perilously close to forgetting the real-world things that bind us in mutual need and benefit—water, food, housing, education, equitable prosperity, public health and welfare, open space and access to public lands, sustainable agriculture, and so on. Let’s add to that list the priceless experience of shared community and common decency among neighbors—things that city dwellers so often lack and hunger for. If we sacrifice these—even for an apparently worthy cause—we’ve paid too high a price.
And yet, I put a safe distance between these issues and myself by using the word “we.” To say that “we” must confront “our” fractious political condition is a well-worn and clever deflection from the only thing that really matters—personal responsibility. A mob—or a whole movement—is not an autonomous entity. It’s a collective, fed only by individual choice. When Gandhi said “Be the change you hope to see in the world,” he was not composing a bumper sticker aphorism; he was describing a deep truth. He could have added, “…because one person’s choice is the only arena in which change ever happens at all.”
With this in mind, I volunteer to go first and offer all my neighbors and fellow travelers this personal pledge:
- I will never attempt to silence you in any way. Constitutional case law has established strict legal parameters on what does or does not constitute protected speech under the First Amendment. If your words cross those boundaries, it is for the courts to decide, not me. Short of that, I will fight for the right of everyone to be seen and heard without repercussion.
- I will actively listen when you speak and remain open to new perspectives I have not yet considered.
- I will never attempt to deprive you of your livelihood or reputation solely because we disagree—nor support those who do.
- I will take no action to deprive you of due process when conflicts arise.
- I will never repeat unsubstantiated accusations or opinions about you as if they were established fact.
- I will never describe you or your views with language that is condescending, belittling, mocking—or that is meant to inflame others against you.
- Finally, I will never air disagreement with you on social media, or some other public forum, before we have spoken in person.
I hope you will follow me in making similar choices for yourself. If not, rest assured: You have my pledge anyway.
Alan Wartes is a writer, filmmaker, and marketing media producer in Gunnison. He can be reached at email@example.com.