We have lost our ability to respectfully disagree with our friends and neighbors, and it’s time we all do something about it.

If you aren’t convinced, spend a little time listening to conversations at a local coffee shop or diner, or peruse a comment thread attached to a news story about a divisive local or national issue.

Polarization is nothing new to our democracy, but it is worsening, and it is damaging the social fabric upon which we all depend.

Nineteenth Century French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville summarized the gravity of what we face more than two centuries ago.

“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great,” he wrote.

The world we live in is one that increasingly reinforces our worst impulses. Social media has become an artificial intelligence-driven echo chamber that minimizes diversity of views we consume. Twenty-four hour cable news networks have become select-your-bias feedback loops. And screens and keyboards have replaced interactions with our neighbors, coworkers and friends.

It’s a problem we at the Record-Eagle witness every day. We have watched as readers, letter writers and social media commenters have become more quick to anger over differences of opinion — often veering from arguments of substance toward personal attacks.

We have worked hard to usher name calling and personal attacks away from our opinion pages — a place where we hope friends can disagree vigorously, and air thoughtful arguments of substance. We also have worked during the past few years to steer our own editorial comments toward issues, not people.

The fact is, it’s OK to disagree. Differences of opinion are a healthy fact of life in a well-working democracy. But ignoring or villifying those with whom we disagree isn’t healthy.

That’s why we’re proud to partner with the Traverse City Human Rights Commission in its Seven-Day Civility Challenge — it kicks off tonight with a Reviving Civility panel discussion at 7 p.m. at the Dennos Museum Center’s Milliken Auditorium. The week includes the kickoff conversation, a capstone dinner and discussion and community meal at 5 p.m. on Nov. 9 at Twin Lakes Park, and daily columns and civility activities published in the Record-Eagle throughout the week.

The word “civility” has a bit of a fraught history, at times used to separate people and, at times, preserve status quo. But in our modern context, there is no better description of what we need.

Former Wyoming Sen. Al Simpson probably best described the type of civility we’re talking about in a 2016 discussion about reviving civility in politics. During that discussion, the senator who is known for his quirky quips, described civility as “the noble art of listening, and then the noble art of returning the conversation without shooting gas all over the building.”

One of our nation’s greatest virtues is enshrined in the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. But what’s the point of speaking if all we’re doing is shouting past one another?

We worry everyday for the health of our democracy if we can’t find a way to listen to our neighbors and engage in meaningful dialogue.

Hopefully this challenge to our community to treat one another, especially those who we disagree with, respectfully is the first step toward a healthier democracy.

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