Michael Dowling: A call for civility and decency

By Michael J. Dowling, President & CEO, Northwell Health -

Surveys show that about 1 out of every 4 Americans make New Year's resolutions. Most focus on self-improvement goals such as living healthier, losing weight, pursuing career or job goals, saving money and improving personal relationships. All worthwhile commitments, no doubt, but considering the political, racial and ethnic divides we're experiencing as a nation, what's most needed now is a New Year's pledge by all of us to treat each other with civility and decency.

Even before COVID-19 upended our society in early 2020, the decline of civility and decency was taking its toll on the public psyche, with our elected leaders relentlessly sniping at each other and rudeness, arrogance and rage on display in all facets of daily life — on our highways, on TV, in the workplace and, of course, on the internet.

The pandemic only added fuel to the fire, with "in your face" conflicts over mask-wearing and vaccine mandates playing out in the nation's capital, statehouses, city halls and school board meetings, on airplanes, subways, restaurants and in other places of business across America.

America's sense of decency has certainly been tested before, most notably in the late 1960s and early 1970s when race riots and protests over the Vietnam War polarized our society. But what's particularly troubling today is the commonality and acceptance of incivility. Many of our nation's elected leaders, including members of Congress, are setting the tone for bad behavior, making it more acceptable for others in society to follow suit, creating a noxious environment lacking any boundaries of decency.

During the course of this pandemic, the internet has become a toxic stew of political hostility, not only among those opposing vaccination mandates and spreading misinformation about the vaccines, but those taking pleasure in the deaths of unvaccinated individuals who were vocal in their opposition to the vaccines on Facebook and other social media platforms. In shocking displays of schadenfreude (a German term defined as the joy derived from the misfortune of others), social media sites such as Sorry Antivaxxer chronicle the deaths of unvaccinated COVID-19 victims, post their photos and ridicule the online comments they made prior to their deaths.

"Compassion fatigue" is one of the buzzwords that took hold as the pandemic has dragged on. With 821,000 COVID-19-related deaths in the U.S., far too many seem to have become numb to the human suffering that has devastated families, including an estimated more than 200,000 children younger than 18 who have lost a parent or grandparent to the virus.

When it comes to questions of social unity, a Pew Research Center survey of 17 advanced economies published in October showed that no nation's public is more divided than that of the U.S. Ninety percent of Americans surveyed say there are conflicts between people who support different political parties (compared with a median of 50 percent across all advanced economies), and 71 percent believe there are conflicts between people from different ethnic and racial groups, more than all of the other countries surveyed. Even when it comes to divisions between people who practice different religions, and residents living in urban and rural areas, the survey showed Americans are among the most deeply divided. The acrimony has risen to such a high level that people think their fellow citizens no longer disagree simply over policies, but also over basic facts.

All this discord on so many fronts is a challenge to our democracy — and sadly, ours is becoming more fragile. As Abraham Lincoln said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Unity is key to preserving democracy. Given the deep divide, it's going to take time to heal and unify our nation, but here are a few thoughts on steps we can take to start the healing process.

Respect others point of view: At their core, civility and decency are about respecting other people's opinions, regardless of how extreme they may be or how strongly we disagree with them. Rather than criticizing them or launching into a debate, listen to what others have to say and ask questions. Explain your own point of view and perspective in a reasonable, thoughtful way, without insisting you are right. And rather than taking to social media to express your opinions or challenge the sentiments of others, how about having an actual conversation? Face-to-face dialogues in nonconfrontational settings tend to be far less acrimonious than anonymous, unrestrained social media posts.

Choose your words carefully: Recognizing the divide between Republicans and Democrats, between advocates for racial justice and those who believe law enforcement officers have been unfairly criticized, or between proponents of COVID-19 vaccines and those who are anti-vaccine, be aware of what you say and how you say it. Again, don't ridicule. Recognize that tensions run high on these hot-button topics and people might hold strong views that differ from your own. Certainly feel free to share your opinions, but do so in a respectful manner.

Show empathy: In healthcare, nothing is more important than expressing compassion and understanding of the needs and concerns of patients. We need to carry that into our day-to-day interactions with people in all walks of life. All of us will deal with personal or professional difficulties at some point in our lives, which could contribute to the strong viewpoints people hold. Always be willing to lend a sympathetic ear when speaking to those who may be struggling. Show that you care, offer reassurances and perhaps suggestions you think may help address their problems.

Respect diversity: At the foundation of civility and decency is respecting diversity — whether it pertains to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or religion. All of us need to be accepting of our differences, take the time to understand what's important to others and identify shared values and mutual interests. 

Be willing to compromise: Whether it's personal or business, negotiation is an art. All of us want different things for different reasons, and rarely will we share the same priorities as others. Resolving conflicts starts with adopting a positive, solution-driven approach that looks for common ground and embraces a give-and-take with those who don't necessarily share our opinions.

As we turn the calendar to 2022, let's use it as an opportunity to tone down the rhetoric, reopen dialogue with each other and mend wounds caused by the worst pandemic of our lifetime and years of racial, ethnic and political divide that have worn away at the fabric of our society.

It all starts with civility and decency. If we all embrace that behavior, we'll enjoy a much happier new year. 

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