Shaffer: Building community a cure for political incivility

By Kristina Jackson

Timothy Shaffer has neighbors who disagree with him politically, but he and his wife still made a point to take their daughters trick-or-treating in their neighb orhood because it’s more important to be a part of the community.

Shaffer is an assistant professor at Kansas State University and assistant director of the Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy. Shaffer noticed a growing disconnect between people on opposite sides of the political divide and is trying to help them learn to talk to each other, understand each other and find common ground.

“We don’t have to be on the same page but we do need to be able to interact and communicate,” Shaffer said. Shaffer grew up in Ohio and received degrees from universities in New York and Ohio, including a doctorate from Cornell University. After finishing his education, Shaffer started working with the National Institute for Civic Discourse at the University of Arizona.

“It was founded as a response to this heightened incivility and it’s reaching a fever pitch,” Shaffer said.

Shaffer, who moved to Manhattan with his wife and daughters last year, said citizens have lost some of their shared spaces in their communities and are having a more difficult time talking about politics in a civil manner. Particularly during election season, he said, discussions can turn increasingly vitriolic when sides are pitted against one another. Shaffer said this problem only grows with the length of America’s election cycle, which is several times longer than those in some other countries.

“People are being scapegoated based on their identity in ways that could be detrimental,” he said.

However, Shaffer said, it’s important to remember that political life and political conversations do not end with the election. Every decision, like whether to shop local or at a large chain store, is a political decision.

“Elections are every few years but democracy is every day,” Shaffer said.

Political discussions and the importance of issues continue beyond a vote because voters from both sides are still occupying the same neighborhoods, schools and organizations whether or not there is an upcoming election. “What’s most important but easy to forget is what happens after we get rid of all these maps and after inauguration,” Shaffer said. A critical but simple way to improve the quality of political rhetoric, he said, is just to talk to each other.

Neighborhoods are divided, he said, but people still have to be able to live beside each other. The problem of division comes when people talk only to like-minded friends, family and neighbors, twisting their view of the other side. “By talking to each other, we can begin to see them as human beings and not as this evil ‘other side,’” Shaffer said. He said this underscores the importance of joining community groups like the Optimist Club, Kiwanis Club or similar civic organizations, especially ones that are not focused on one issue but have larger purposes in the community.

In his work at K-State and with the Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy, Shaffer and his colleagues have tried to bring together diverse groups of students who come to K-State from across the country to discuss political issues and listen to each other. David Procter, director of the institute, said they have tried to facilitate conversation in response to coarse political dialogue.

“This is being spurred on by candidates, by cable news and talk radio,” Procter said. “There’s an almost overwhelming amount of incivility and polarization.”

Procter said the institute’s mission is to help communities engage in civil discussion and said Shaffer is a leader in this field.

“He really is totally dedicated to the issue of productive community conversation,” Procter said. “He has excellent training and a passion for the work.”

Shaffer said he wants to prepare his students to be engaged citizens who are capable of this level of conversation. If they can learn to talk to and understand people who are different from them, it will serve them for the rest of their lives.

“These skills translate beyond the political season,” Shaffer said.

In his own life, for example, when Shaffer and his family moved to Manhattan, neighbors came to introduce themselves and brought food to welcome them to the neighborhood. The simple acts of creating and growing a community help to imagine people as more than their political leanings.

“We’re not locked into liberal or conservative,” Shaffer said. “That thinking puts us into camps where I know who you are without knowing who you are. This allows us to not be so locked into stereotypes.”

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