In a time when it seems we can't even have civil conversations with our neighbors, we must promote actions and institutions that build social trust. What if everyone dedicated a year to civic service?

Even in a society with unparalleled access to information and connectivity, we struggle to have reasoned debate. Conspiracy theories, propaganda and character assassination liter the public sphere. Having conversations around big ideas affecting the greater good has become increasingly difficult. Yet, it is needed now more than ever. If we want to overcome the challenges of Covid-19, racial injustice and economic hardship, we must revive the lost art of civility.

That position may sound controversial to some, as civility can be a loaded term. One understanding of the word evokes limiting speech, a way for the established class to maintain the status quo through rigid decorum. The other meaning, and the one with which we are concerned, connotes empathy, mutual respect, and a desire to understand those with whom we disagree. The first definition is legalistic. The second is concerned with human well-being. Drawing inspiration from the world of sports, it is the essence of maintaining fierce competition without giving into personal hatred of an opponent.

This piece of thought leadership is part of 11 Moonshot Ideas to Move the Columbus Region Forward: A Future 50 project.


The need for a civic renaissance • The private sector should fight inequity • Closing the digital divide • Driving equity by funding women-owned businesses • Designing a more equitable region • Using data to guide public policy • Customer-centricity in social services • A radical recalibration of education • ISO: Ambassadors for science • Finding true work-life balance post-Covid • Reimagining community-police relations • Why we did this project

While biology explains some of our tribal inclinations, the modern media landscape has raised tensions to a new level. Cable news and online social platforms have perfected ways of exploiting cognitive biases. Partisan commentators elevate opinion over fact and outrage over analysis, feeding viewers the red meat of reinforced political ideology. Social media goes a step further with algorithms that place users into echo chambers of like-minded friends sharing misleading memes. The economy of views, likes, and shares incentivizes sensationalist content, crowding out reliable sources. The current situation may sound discouraging, but it demonstrates that our environment plays a significant role and we can take action to reverse course. As such, we have the ability and responsibility to reverse course. To do so, we must promote actions and institutions that build social trust.

What if everyone dedicated a year to civic service? We could enact a program akin to a domestic Peace Corps where participants would work on projects contributing to the communal infrastructure of Columbus. Areas of focus might include education, art, public health, neighborhood development and poverty alleviation. Such an initiative would connect those from various backgrounds and unite them around a shared purpose. Imagine what that would do to break down our social bubbles of wealth, status, religion, politics and race. With high unemployment and a much-needed upgrade to infrastructure, now is the time to consider an option for civic service.

However, we shouldn’t wait for a large-scale program to be mandated before getting involved. On an individual level, we can strengthen our community by shifting how we engage with each other to effect change.

To begin, we need to understand how we dehumanize those with whom we disagree. Shifting paradigms away from good and evil towards valid and invalid is a start—though any binary judgment will be too simplistic. Most real-world conflicts have multiple solutions with messy tradeoffs. When individuals embrace that nuance, conversations become richer and more constructive. Assuming good intentions also helps. Most people, even our opponents, want to make the world better. Though they may have different ways of getting there. Such diversity of perspective leads to healthy debate and avoids the blind spots of groupthink.

Over the past few decades, the move to digital conversation has paved the way for increasingly contentious interactions. All else being equal, in-person discussion encourages the productive mindsets mentioned above, especially for controversial topics. Fortunately, Columbus already has an organization bringing people together for informed conversation. The Columbus Metropolitan Club hosts weekly town-hall style forums covering topics relevant to community interests. Most recently, it launched the series, “Racism: Where do we go from here?” to open a dialogue around racial inequality.

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Going beyond conversation to action, volunteering is another proven way to grow social bonds. It does so by uniting people from different backgrounds around a common cause. Secondly, it educates participants by exposing them to realities on the ground. Those who volunteer understand both intellectually and emotionally the needs of the community.

Exchanging barbs online is easy and addicting, but it achieves nothing. Unfortunately, that approach has become the default mode. As a result, social capital has suffered from deferred maintenance. American society needs to return to a more intimate and authentic way of interacting. This means getting out of our comfort zones, growing empathy, engaging in vulnerable conversations, building consensus and serving our communities together. In short, we must replace passive punditry with active citizenship.

Josh Harrison is president of Improving-Columbus and a member of the board of the Columbus Metropolitan Club.

With contributions from Falon Donohue, Matthew Goldstein, Brad Griffith, Rebecca Hurd and Jacquie Bickel