From the Beacon, November 2021

Local leaders have presided over a remarkable period of disruption and uncertainty, navigating their communities through a devastating pandemic that has touched every person. Decades from now, when historians document the major lessons learned, I believe that local government and unheralded officials in their hometowns will be recognized as true difference-makers who responded with extraordinary speed and innovation to save countless people from illness and death, and kept the fabric of our society stitched together during the most difficult of times.

We are only beginning to understand the long-term impact that the past 20 months will have on the U.S. and the world going forward. Like an axe that strikes but does not fell a tree, the wounds and scars of COVID-19 will be visible for many years, and will shape the way we grow. For some, the tragic loss of family members, friends or loved ones will be acutely painful forever. For others, the stark isolation and separation required for our physical health have led to depression and mental health struggles. Many have been or will be forced to shutter their businesses, transition to different vocations, and face the prospect of lower incomes and fewer opportunities. Those at the end of their careers may cease working earlier than they planned, and those just starting out may find the going very slow and take longer to get momentum.

Systemic problems that persisted before the pandemic have been exacerbated. The wealth gap has increased, and the health gap has widened as well. Historically disadvantaged populations, primarily our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) neighbors, who have been on the short end of the wealth and health spectrum, were hit much harder by COVID and we now find that there is much more ground to make up in the pursuit of a more equitable society.

The pandemic has caused so much pain, and yet we’ve seen so much resilience, and so much adaptation. Science has given us vaccines and testing, health professionals have given us treatment and guidance, technology has given us Zoom and WebEx, and government leaders have used all these tools to create a new normal, with most of society finding more stable ground to stand on, and more balance in daily life. Most businesses are reformatted and open, schools are back in person, Fenway Park has hosted record crowds. City and town halls, local boards and public agencies are opening back up to in-person engagement, following new protocols. People are finding their rhythm and making do.

Yet the beat is still off, for sure. Supply chains are still disrupted, inflation has popped into the picture, and partisan and polarized politics (especially at the national level) have not eased. These are the more visible signs that things are still askew.

Less tangible, but more insidious, is the growing sign that the uncertainty, angst, isolation and distancing of the past 20 months has emboldened a small but growing number of individuals to become more disruptive and confrontational, and less civil and tolerant in their interactions with public officials, businesses, co-workers, neighbors and strangers.

I’m sure that everyone reading this column has directly observed examples of this rising incivility. Local officials on select boards, city and town councils, and school committees all know of colleagues who have been yelled at, interrupted and insulted — all because they were simply trying to make their best decisions on very difficult and charged issues.

We know the hot-button issues: masks in schools or in public places, the potential of vaccine and/or testing requirements for employees or vendors or visitors, and whether to hold remote or in-person meetings, to name a few. Most see these as health measures to protect the public, and some see these as issues of individual liberty. It is the latter perspective that seems to trigger the greatest rise in confrontation and lack of civility. This makes sense, because if someone feels a lack of control or loss of power, they are more likely to engage in outbursts because they do not feel heard and do not trust that their viewpoints will be listened to.

A new study published by Lauren Park and Larry Martinez of Portland State University, “An ‘I’ for an ‘I’: A systematic review and meta-analysis of instigated and reciprocal incivility,” published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, offers good insights on how the pandemic has ramped up rude behavior in the workplace, and that insight translates well to the public sphere.

The authors assert that the pandemic has reduced face-to-face personal interaction, and people are out of practice in handling difficult situations or conversations. It is easier to ignore or dismiss others when there is no direct accountability, and these habits can spread to others, spiraling a workplace into a hotbed of tension and unhappiness.

In particular, Park and Martinez note that while those with less authority are more likely to act out, this makes it critically important for those in authority to model respectful behavior, and to support those who have been the target of incivility, as the failure to do so allows the behavior to spread and deepens a vicious circle that becomes harder and harder to unwind.

This is good advice for employers. Workplace policies setting expectations for respectful interaction and engagement can help. Training on facilitating disagreements and difficult discussions, on how to actively listen and understand another’s point of view even when it differs from your own, on how to deescalate charged situations, and on how to support those who have been the subject of abuse and insults are all helpful.

But taking these steps in the workplace is child’s play when compared to taking action in a public setting, without a previously set shared behavioral covenant that binds all participants, with a camera lens aimed at you and people tweeting and live-stream-commenting from a distance.

The first step is for local leaders to model civility in all their interactions, to do their best to not respond in kind to personal insults, to voice support for colleagues who have been the targets of rude or disruptive behavior, to actively listen to each other and to constituents during deliberations to understand everyone’s perspective.

Civility does not mean unity. There will always be policy disagreements. Some will be small and nuanced, others will be larger and harder to reconcile. But that is the democratic process.

If local conversations can be framed with the understanding that everyone is trying to be their best selves and do what they believe is best for their community, then perhaps that will create a reinforcing loop for civility. And those who are compelled to stay outside that reinforcing loop will see their power to disrupt diminish. Rude behavior won’t be eradicated, but it can be relocated to the margins instead of the main stage.

With a remarkable sense of vision — and perhaps a premonition of things to come — in January 2020, the MMA Policy Committee on Personnel and Labor Relations, as part of MMA’s annual Best Practices Series, issued a Best Practice Recommendation for the Conduct and Civility of Public Officials. Please take the time to read their excellent advice and the resources they suggest. It’s a helpful summary and a great place to start.

Rising incivility is one of the many side effects of the pandemic. Unabated, it will spread (like a virus), and all of you reading this, as local leaders deeply committed to making your cities and towns true communities in the best sense of the word, may face stiffer headwinds and your work on pandemic recovery, equity and growth will become harder.

The good news is that you and your municipal colleagues are in the perfect position to shape local norms, to model best expectations, and to guide your neighbors in how to engage with respect and understanding. That work — fighting incivility and building inclusive communities — will make an outsized difference in the post-pandemic world.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO