Civility and respect on school boards

We should assume that there will be disagreements when school boards meet.  Disagreements are actually a good thing; they should be welcomed and embraced because they (usually) indicate that serious questions are being asked in an effort to discern the best way forward for the school’s future.

However, disagreements can become destructive if they degenerate into personal attacks or descend into conflicts between people rather than conflicts between ideas.  When respect between board members breaks down, the board’s operations can become seriously dysfunctional.

It is essential for board effectiveness that disagreements are handled in ways that honour the fundamental respect that is due to each person as an equal member of the board.  Even fierce disagreements must be conducted according to the moral requisite of civility.

Civility is much more than being polite or courteous.  To act with civility is to remove ego from discussions and relationships, refusing to take offence or taking something personally when another person disagrees with you.  In other words, reacting angrily in a discussion is to become uncivil.

There may be times in wider society when a lack of civility might perhaps be justified, such as when a group of oppressed people who have been subjugated for aeons cry out angrily for justice.  However, it would be an extremely unusual, almost unimaginably rare school board meeting where a situation arose that would justify uncivil behaviour.  As a rule, civility should be the assumed moral framework under which every school board meeting functions.

And yet, it isn’t always so.

the art of civility calligraphy

Most school leaders and board members have experienced situations when inappropriate passion has taken over a board discussion or two (or three) (or more).  Anyone who has experienced this will know that such lack of civility NEVER aids the process of rational decision-making.  Never!

I think two authors provide especially useful insights into civility as a framework that can enhance the dynamics of school boards.

In her book “Mere Civility”, the Oxford political theorist Teresa Bejan defines civility as “a conversational virtue that is meant to regulate the deliberations of free and equal citizens”.  This definition represents a sound basis for school board dynamics, allowing space for passion and deeply held values while also regulating the words we use, even when board members who are “free and equal” disagree.

Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and author of “Sustaining Democracy”, Robert Talisse, describes civility as a knotting, or bundle, of three virtues: public mindedness (what is best for everyone, not just the speaker), reciprocity (a genuine exchange between people in which a speaker expects to be heard and to be answered), and transparency (engaging in public conversation in a manner that is intelligible to others who are listening, even if they don’t agree with you – making an argument that has a reasonable chance of being persuasive to a diverse audience with whom we share a common future).

If we accept these views of civility, we immediately see a contrast between the way a school board should function and the negative role modelling that is often provided in contemporary politics.  Politics in many parts of the world increasingly raises the stakes of any issue to the level of an existential crisis, making the issue insoluble as common ground becomes almost impossible to find.  “Your climate policy will make farming areas of this country uninhabitable”.  “Your industrial relations policy will send this country back a hundred years”.  “Your defence policy will make us a target for a nuclear attack”.  The result is extreme divisiveness as the public has to navigate an ocean of false dichotomies that preclude civility.

How can board members avoid the slippery slope towards uncivility?  Ideally, it requires board members to have the wisdom to restrain themselves voluntarily in order to retain something that is much more valuable than the immediate point being discussed – that is, the effectiveness of the board.  This has been likened to a marriage relationship in which one or the other partner might be able to say something or “pull a trump card” to score a “win” in a disagreement, but chooses not to do so in order to preserve long-term trust in the relationship.  As the Swedish-American philosopher and ethicist Sissela Bok wrote in her book “Lying”, “whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives”. 

For such trust and civility to function effectively, consensus and commitment are required affirming that every board member is “free and equal”, and that the board’s authority is collective, being practised only through a formal process of judicious decision-making.  If these foundations are accepted and mutual trust has been established, then respect and civility among board members should be an inevitable consequence.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

(This article was inspired by an episode of ‘The Minefield’ podcast on the question “Is civility a moral obligation in a democracy?”, first broadcast by ABC Australia on 17 November 2022).

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