Is There Anything to Do About 'Civility'?

This post is plenty long, and even so it covers only a fraction of the responses that have come it. The original question was, does increased "civility" mean anything in practice? Any handy rules of thumb, akin to Michael Pollan's rules about food? First suggestions previously here. A reader writes in to begin another installment:

>>I would start with the observation that civility works. Violence never persuades; at best, it gets the other person's attention long enough to have an actual conversation. Failing that, a violent act might effectively stop a single act of serious harm, such as invading Poland or shooting up a schoolyard. But the actual persuasion, the actual conversion, can only come about through dialog, civility, and mutuality.

I can think of three rules of civility I try to live by:

1) I work hard to never engage in threats or other forms of violence. If I even find these attractive, I ask myself why, and deal with the basis for my anger. I find that when I understand the source of my anger, one of two things happens: either I discover a real contradiction in my thinking or my way of life and decide that I need to make a change, or else I discover something truly wrong about the policy or point of view that I disagree with, and by taking the time to understand my anger, I can make a truly compelling case.

2) I avoid rhetoric or thinking that has as its end the elimination of a political viewpoint. Even in the case of viewpoints considered truly evil by general consensus, I try to focus on enshrining a good value rather than eliminating an evil one.

3) I avoid any desire to humiliate political opponents. I try not to paint them or think of them as personally evil, avoid fantasies in which they have to eat their words. I try not to speak or to think of them as personally evil or defective. I remember that shame, in politics, does not serve any useful purpose.<<

From a European now working in the US software industry:

>>How about banning the use of the "strawman" fallacy (i.e. attacking someone for a position they don't really hold)? That should take care of about 90% of all inflammatory rhetoric.....

Moving from the Netherlands to the US about a decade ago, the unchecked use of strawman-based rhetoric struck me as the biggest difference in the nature of the public debate. Unfortunately, things are changing for the worst back in the Netherlands, with right-wing politician Geert Wilders stealing plays from the US political play-book to significant effect. One example: the term "liberal elite" is recently getting a lot of air time and is used as a way of blanketing opponents and ascribing them all kinds of supposedly nefarious attributes and ideas<<

Another reader:

>>As bad as specifically violent rhetoric is the invocation of 'tyranny', 'treason' and the like, which I think are used (perhaps not fully intentionally) because they de-legitimate the political opposition and justify extreme measures in response. In fact, I am coming to see even 'tea party' as suspect in this way, since it suggests violent opposition to an illegitimate authority.<<

A reader in California:

>>Defining 'civility' is a perfectly worth goal but somehow the whole conversation has turned to the political rhetoric rather than the obvious observation that our country is awash in guns, our political system awash in corporate and NRA money. What was the discussion after the attempted assassination on President Reagan in comparison? As I emailed a friend yesterday, perhaps our moment of silence should be a contemplation of the meaning of the words "well-regulated".<<

Another:

>>1. The words "traitor," "treason" and variations thereof are reserved for people actually charged with treason.

2. All references to tyranny should be limited to foreign governments. Concerns about the scope of government in the United States should instead be couched in the language of individual and states' rights and freedoms instead of in the language of encroachment by a hostile power.

3. At no time can we separate the "real" Americans from the fake ones, even if we disagree about values.

4. If the statement is calculated to shut down debate or devolves into name-calling ("You lie!), it is not helpful.

5. Attributing an opponent's positions to personal deficiencies or ulterior motives (e.g. calling them stupid, drug-addled, insecure, or racist/sexist) is not constructive.

6. Respond to your opponents as if you believe them to be reasonable, intelligent, mature adults--even if you don't actually think so.

7. Anything meant to bait your opponents or purposefully piss them off is not helpful. You should either be trying to convince the other side, or rallying your own, but never saying something just to provoke reaction.

8. If you make the claim that someone is being dishonest, you need to immediately follow that claim with evidence.

9. Replace all further political discourse with the Socratic method. (My personal favorite)<<

A reader in Virginia:

>>One possible civil-civic-discourse rule: Forbid anonymity in newspaper and magazine online forums.

The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot provides a nice example of a newspaper trying to respond to calls for that rule: http://hamptonroads.com/verify. I love it that they explicitly invoke long-established journalistic standards against pernicious anonymity.)<<

A reader in (I think) Pennsylvania:

>>How about no more name-calling? And by that I mean stuff like "Caribou Barbie," "Slick Willie" and "Plastic Pelosi." Show public servants the respect they deserve by using their given names. I'd love to see both media commentators and my friends (on both sides) honor this one.<<

Another, from points unknown:

>>A self-selected group of scholars (professors in communications, logic, etc.) and retired politicians from both parties appoint themselves as a standing committee for civility.

Any statement by a politician that a majority of the committee concludes is a violation of civilized standards of discourse is called out by the committee, which issues a short summary of its reasoning.

The offending politician is directed to share a meal at a public restaurant with the target of his/her attack. If the offending rhetoric was not directed at an individual, the committee selects a suitable stand-in for the meal.

The offending politician picks up the tab.<<

Another:

>>I'll add three guidelines.

- Words are tools. Like all tools, you should know how they work before you use them. If you aren't sure what a particular word (such as treason, murder, fascism, Nazi, or socialism) means, do not use it. Dictionaries are easy to come by. If a particular word has more than one meaning, be sure everyone knows which meaning you are using.

- Accusing someone of a crime is a serious matter. If you are going to call someone a war criminal or a traitor, you should be prepared to offer hard evidence that the person has in fact violated the laws of war (citing specific law or treaty), or has waged war against his or her country.

- Remember that it is possible for you to be wrong, and that the purpose of debate is to instruct, not to defeat. If you're proved wrong on something, accept it graciously; thanks to your opponent, you've learned something new. On the other side, if you prove your opponent wrong, it is much more likely that they'll accept it graciously (rather than put their fingers in their ears and sing "La, la, la, not listening") if you are polite and respectful. If they do not accept it graciously and accept the new information, you have failed your purpose even if you "won" the argument.<<

On dealing with "your own" side:

>>One of the things about political discourse that I find most frustrating is the intellectually lazy notion that Side A will get Side B to change its evil ways by pointing out Side B's many evils. I can't think of an example in which that tactic has worked, from a political perspective. It reminds me of the sage advise I was given regarding marriage: if you and your spouse have an argument and you are only 2% in the wrong and the spouse is responsible for 98%, your job is to apologize/fix/take responsibility for your 2%. That's all! No finger pointing, even if it's true. Just man up and deal with your 2%. If you do, you find that your spouse is much more likely to do the same with his/her 98%.

All across the blogosphere and media I've read a general defense of "yes, our side may have used vitriol before but their side is worse." To which I say, deal with your 2%. While the Right, in my opinion, has the corner on the vitriol market at this point in time, and Mr. Loughner may indeed have consciously or subconsciously heard and acted directly due to words of Limbaugh/Beck/Palin & Co., no Republican will stop doing these things because the Huffington Post, Krugman or Rich tell them to. On the other hand, I wonder how they would respond if every Democrat politician took responsibility for his/her questionable words/ads/speeches without any finger-pointing. Wouldn't it be amazing to hear President Obama include in the State of the Union address an acknowledgement of his "they bring knives/we bring guns" quote, apologize for it and pledge to do everything in his power to let that be the last vitriolic comment that comes from his mouth? I'm sure there would be some politicians who would remain unmoved, but I can't imagine all Republicans refusing to jump on that bandwagon as soon as possible.<<

One more on the worth of the whole venture:

>>I think the effort to bring 'civility' into public discourse is both doomed and ahistorical. Political rhetoric was much rougher in the 19th century, after all, and a greater proportion of the population was armed, yet political assassination was a remarkable rarity.

Note, too, that the rhetoric surrounding sporting events (and sometimes the events themselves -- football, boxing) is quite violent: "Kill 'em", "Kill the ump!" &c. Yet umpires and players are not often murdered in this country -- or not on the field, anyway. Of course, the sport the rest of the world calls 'football' is quite different in this respect: how many other sports spark wars?

Most of us are perfectly capable of understanding that when Clinton, Begala, and Carville create a "war room" they're not actually plotting to kill Republicans. Ditto Palin's 'targeting' -- which is, after all, a very common metaphorical usage throughout American society (as is "blow x away"). To censor speech based on the evidence-free speculation that some words might just possibly nudge some lunatic to violence is irresponsible.

That having been said, I would like to see political debates which do not begin and end with the Left asserting that the Right is evil and the Right asserting that the Left is stupid. But see, "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity": and Lord knows we have plenty of stupid politicians -- and a long tradition of pointing that out.

On yet another hand, sometimes ad-hominem arguments are not out of place: Obama's tobacco and fast-food habits do rather conflict with his wife's enthusiastic hectoring of everyone else to eat more healthily.<<

'Love it or leave it!':

>>Thank you for organizing an effort to establish reasonable guidelines for civil discourse, something this society desperately needs. I would immediately flag the distinction between the legal and moral realms: there's good reason for offensive imagery and language to have broad legal protection, but public shaming is a valuable and entirely appropriate tool for the kind of hate speech practiced by the likes of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, etc.

It's rather bitterly ironic that the Vietnam-era slogan "America: Love It Or Leave It" can now be held over Republicans and the right. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.<<

Bring back the 'fairness doctrine':

>>Well, how about reinstituting the law that all media outlets must present both sides of every issue.<<

Resentment comes from one side:

>>I don't have a unified theory of civility in public life. However, I thought I would point out one reason denunciations of violent political rhetoric in the wake of the Tucson murders inspire so many expressions of resentment.

It is a fact of modern political life that the preponderance of resentful, hostile political language comes from the right. The last twenty years, and particularly the last three or four, have been years of disruptive and threatening change for a very large part of the American population. These are people who were raised to believe they had a right to a materially abundant, stable life -- job, home, family -- and now live at a time when all of that is in doubt. Naturally they are resentful; naturally they find it easier to assign blame to other people than to look within themselves (or to just accept the new reality forced upon them).

These are the people who form political talk radio's primary audience. They've made hosts like Limbaugh and Hannity rich. Toning down the rhetoric that has made them is not something the talk radio people have an obvious incentive to do -- they have done very well by speaking to the resentment and hostility of an audience now possessed of a highly developed sense of victimhood. Calls for civility are now running directly into that sense of victimhood: an immovable object, opposed by an all too resistible force.

I doubt anyone's political speech played a role in the Tucson murders (the easy access of a mental defective to a semi-automatic weapon is another story). Political speech dominated by appeals to resentment and victimhood, though, are unworthy of the country regardless. The challenge of men and women in public life is to speak to the anxiety of many millions of Americans without seeking to appease it -- a difficult task, and one they will need to undertake without expecting much help from electronic media.<<

'So easy to be wrong':

>>If I were to suggest a civil mantra, perhaps something to state as a point of practice before responding to others, it might be this: "You may be right, but it is so easy to be wrong." Another more inviting way could be to ask, "Can we help each other to understand this?" I want to emphasize "this," "this idea," "this question," "our topic," as ways to remind each other that we need to speak about ideas, not fears and not insubstantial second-hand opinions. Therefore we need to do this in libraries, where our information is collected and where professional librarians can help us to find it.

Cultural institutions are democratic instruments. When we have such conversations in libraries and museums, I like to suggest that Thomas Jefferson is in the room. Right now I am unsure of the fate of this book, but it is an effort to remind ourselves that the erosion of open conversation is the loss of something distinctly American, something still within our capacities. One theme of the book is "becoming something together."<<

Again, what matters is criticizing our own side:

>>Thanks for collecting these rules of civility but may I suggest a slightly different angle. I think the way towards improvement is to change the way we police the rules rather than the rules themselves.

Namely we should spend way more time criticising the civility of those we agree with politically. This is partly because it is way easier for our own biases to confuse us when we disagree with someone than when we agree with them (though bias has an impact there too). But in general if you think a political opponent is acting incivil but no one on their side agrees, odds are you are the one that's confused.

But more importantly civility complaints are far harder to dismiss when it comes from a political ally.

So may I suggest a rule that a blogger must make 5 civility complaints against people they otherwise agree with for every 1 they make against someone they disagree with (in which case Yglesias and Malkin have a lot of work a head of them). If you want to complain you have to earn it by policing your own side.<<

I think that will do for now. More ahead; thanks to all.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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