weaponizing civility in an age of authentic meanness

People in my world have lately become consumed with the Enneagram. It is not a new thing; rather, it is a centuries old way of understanding nine perspectives on how to approach and respond to the people with whom we share this earth. Lately, Nashvillians are obsessed. To be fair, other parts of Nashville are annoyed. Supremely annoyed. I was at a party last night, and when a friend came in and heard us talking about enneagram numbers, she rolled her eyes, turned on her heal, and said, “I’m going to get an alcohol.” Hilarious.

According to enneagram teaching, some personality types crave authenticity more than others. For those of us who strive to transparently reflect our own authenticity, we also highly value this trait in others. We struggle to understand how others spend so much energy to project an image that might differ from reality. We struggle to understand how others can work so hard to choose their words carefully rather than just articulating how they feel. We can begin to feel that any effort to revise or improve our interaction with the world is not authentic, and therefore a lie. This is a dangerous assumption.

Incivility is not a sign of authenticity.

While I hear and have contributed to the enneagram mania, I also hear a lot of people wondering where our civility has gone. We find ourselves in an age where incivility seems to impress people, where truth telling is only recognized if it is laced with meanness. Treating each other civilly, with kindness and respect, seems insufficiently weak. Encouraged by our leaders to fear others and blame those who disagree, we see the world through binaries. Because we have often lost the ability to see the many facets of a problem and the myriad possibilities in solutions, we become uncivil. Civility is born out of mutual respect, and I’m afraid if one affirms their respect for an adversary now, one is accused of being inauthentic.

What are authenticity and civility? How do we recognize them? Are they good? Are they inherent or are they products of discipline? I believe humanity is at its best when they are both on display, but I am now aware that for many, these two ideas are diametrically opposed. In the last 2 years, civility has become the enemy of authenticity. Put another way, in many circles, the presence of civility exposes one’s inauthenticity, while incivility confirms authenticity.

This is wildly untrue, and yet easily believed by many of us. It goes something like this:

  • We want leaders who are authentic and who tell the truth, too bad if your feelings get hurt in the process. 
  • Civility doesn’t get stuff done, and I’m tired of tiptoeing around instead of telling it like it is.
  • If you say something that is not politically correct then it means you’re authentic, so I trust you.
  • You cannot authentically believe in this cause and be civil to those on the opposing side; you prove your loyalty to us by being dismissive of them.

I’m interested in how our desire for authenticity affects the way we relate to each other in the public sphere, particularly around the ideas of political correctness and civility. For a segment of the population, authenticity dispels political correctness, and political correctness is a sign of insincerity. This is problematic for at least a few reasons. First, it is based on an idea that the best measure of authenticity is meanness. It suggests that deep down we are all jerks who have disdain for anyone who might contradict or even affect us. It assumes that to be authentic is to be unkind. It assumes that the only way to honestly reflect oneself to others is with rudeness.

Second, it undermines political correctness not just as inconvenient for the speaker, but as a problem for a society who prefers authenticity. It equates political correctness with dishonesty, a supposition that leads a person to best demonstrate her authenticity by violating norms of kindness. In this equation, to be politically correct is to be fake, while being insensitive to or dismissive of others is the mark of authenticity.

Third, when we pit political correctness (or civility) against authenticity and therefore trustworthiness, we create an atmosphere where trustworthy leaders are those with the lowest regard for the value of others. We reward leaders who earn our trust by honestly disparaging others with demeaning authenticity.

Fourth, it is easy for us to mistake civility for political correctness. When being politically correct is the opposite of honesty or authenticity, civility—mistaken for political correctness—becomes a mark of weakness or a sign of untrustworthiness. Accusations of civility are actually weaponized to expose a person as weak and inauthentic. Civility dies when authenticity is misunderstood.

In enneagram parlance, as an 8 with a strong 9 wing, I crave authenticity in making things right, but I hope to do it in a way that elevates everyone’s value. In regular-speak, I hope to remind: You don’t have to be an asshole to be a passionate or effective leader! You are not selling out your cause if you are kind to people with whom you disagree. You can be both authentic and civil. You can tell it like it is in a way that keeps the conversation going, rather than shutting it down. It is easy to blame “them” for our rejection of civility. It is easy to think it is “their” fault that so many of us confuse bullying for refreshing authenticity.

It begins with me though. As a member of society, it is on me to find a way to authentically advocate for my values without damaging others in the process. It is my job to speak with civility even when I passionately disagree. If I can’t do it on my own back porch, or in the break room at work, or in the stands at the ballpark, then I have no business blaming “Washington” for our incivility. Authenticity is not demonstrated through incivility. Let’s stop blaming “them” and instead become authentic leaders committed to civility in our own circles. If we do so, we will expand our notion of “us,” and remember we are a people who need each other.