Most of my posts are organized around a question. This one, though, has a thesis--that a particular variety of incivility is based on the misunderstanding of leadership, both on the part of the uncivil person and the person on the receiving end of the incivility.
Consider this story on NPR today. The election season is on us bringing attack ads with it. These ads have many characteristics--the ominous voice-over, the melodrama, and the half-true claims about one candidate or another. But they also share a particular view of leadership--that a person in elected office somehow causes the events that happen during her/his term of service.
This view of leadership--leader as the cause of all that occurs--is blasphemous. It is also a view that exists among the leaders as well as among the led. So, for example, Presidents claim that they (or their administrations) have caused improving economic conditions when they improve. And when those conditions do not improve, the President's opponents blame the president for the economic downturn.
That a leader causes something to happen is, in all but the most modest cases, not true. Even in the case of actions tied closely to the leader--making a decision on a policy, for example,--that leader does not wholly cause something to happen. The decision is in response to an event or an issue, the leader has received advice (usually contradictory) from others, and the outcome of the decision is rarely as clear or as simple as one might hope.
Why do we persist in the belief that leaders are causal agents? Because it flatters the biases of leaders and the led, because it give free rein to pride rather than humility, because it suggests an explicable world, and because it allows all participants to avoid taking responsibility for the things they actually are responsible for.
A bit more on this last point: incivility is a form of rhetoric, the purpose of which is to limit concrete responses to concrete problems. Incivility is at its core symbolic--it signals to listeners that they should behave a certain way, or draw certain conclusions on the basis of signs, not signifiers. So incivility is closer to protest and parade than it is to deliberation or argument.
In this sort of setting, how does one take responsibility? It is almost impossible. The leader cannot accept responsibility, for she has been charged with all manner of things that she could not possibly have caused. And the incivil one cannot take responsibility, for to do so is to undermine the entire thesis of the uncivil act. After all, if the leader did not cause the whole thing, then the complainer must bear some responsibility as well.
Leaders and complainers both would do well to practice humility in the face of the temptation to be the cause of all things. And educators would do well to work with students and colleagues on the problems of causation. Doing so makes it possible for leaders and complainers to bear responsibility for the small things for which we truly can be responsible. And it allows us to honestly recognize what we all know--that most occurrences are beyond the control of any person, leader or complainer.