Incivility breeds threats to democracy

In 1982, noted criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling developed the “broken windows” theory of crime. The premise was that when a broken window in a building is left unrepaired, the rest of the windows are soon broken by vandals.

According to Wilson and Kelling, the broken window invites further vandalism by sending a signal that no one is in charge, and that breaking more windows has no undesirable consequences.

The broken window is their metaphor for numerous ways in which behavioral norms can break down in a community. If one person scrawls graffiti on a wall, others will soon be using their spray paint. If one person begins dumping garbage in a vacant lot, other dumpers will follow.

In short, once people begin disregarding the norms that maintain community order, both community and order unravel _ sometimes with alarming alacrity.

The broken-windows theory is applicable to the modern-day political campaign.

The campaign for public office should be waged within the marketplace of ideas.

It should entail a wide range of debates about public policy, with the candidates each aiming to persuade the citizenry to accept their viewpoints.

However, what we’re seeing within the marketplace of ideas today is a disturbing growth of incivility that confirms the broken-windows theory. This breakdown of civil norms is not the exclusive failing of either the political left or the right. It spreads across the political spectrum. It is typically carried out, not by the candidates, but by auxiliary groups and other campaigners, who attempt to help their cause by demonizing their opponents.

For example, New Jersey’s just-completed race for governor was marred by cross-allegations of marital infidelity.

Such examples _ unfortunately, there are many more _ come from so-called leaders in the marketplace of ideas, all of whom are highly educated and must stand behind their public statements. The Internet, with its easy access and worldwide reach, is a breeding ground for even more degrading incivilities.

This illustrates the first aspect of the broken-windows theory: Once the incivility starts, people will take it as an invitation to join in, and pretty soon there’s little limit to the incivility.

A second aspect of the broken-windows theory, however, is also happening.

Wilson and Kelling describe this response when the visible signs of order deteriorate in a neighborhood: “Many residents will think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, and they will modify their behavior accordingly. They will use the streets less often, and when on the streets will stay apart from their fellows, moving with averted eyes, silent lips, and hurried steps. Don’t get involved.”

We see this in the political arena. Many are opting out as civility breaks down in the marketplace of ideas. In the last two presidential elections, fewer than half of eligible voters even bothered to vote; voter participation in national elections is on a 40-year decline. As the atmosphere turns hostile to anything approaching a civil exchange or a real dialogue, citizens depart from the political process and shun their civic responsibility.

This is the real danger of incivility. Our free-breathing, self-governing society requires the oxygen of an open exchange of ideas. It requires a certain level of civility rooted in mutual respect for each other’s opinions. However, what we see today is an accelerating competition between the left and the right to see which side can inflict more damage to the other. Increasingly, participants in public debates appear to be exchanging ideas when in fact they are spewing invective.

When behavioral norms break down in a community, the police can restore order.

But when civility breaks down in the marketplace of ideas, the law is generally powerless. Our right to speak freely _ indeed, to speak with incivility _ is guaranteed by the First Amendment.

If we are to prevail as a free, self-governing people, we must restore civility to public discourse. We have to be responsible. We must govern our tongues and our pens. Whether the incivility occurs on a talk show, in a newspaper column, in political-campaign ads, at the office water cooler, or in an Internet chat room, it must be met with active disapproval.

This is not to say that democracy requires consensus; it requires debate, which presupposes that we have disagreements. But civility demands of us that we not let those disagreements _ even during these times of great division between the left and the right _ push us into words or acts of sharp offense or violence.

By encouraging us to see as equals even those with whom we disagree vehemently, civility lets us hold the respectful dialogues without which democratic decision-making is impossible.

(Eugene G. Bernardo II is a lawyer in Providence, R.I.)