A Very Good Question: What Does 'Civility' Mean? Exactly?

A reader writes with this "let's get specific" question:

>>Seeing media and op-ed reactions to the Tucson shootings, I was struck by the fact that the vast majority of coverage seems to be along lines that do not seem particularly constructive.

It has quickly become a question of whether political discourse has become too inflamed, and whether this over-the-top rhetoric is in part responsible for the violence we've just seen. Most fair-thinking and reasonable people seem to agree that we should restore a larger sense of civility to our political speech, but what I have yet to see from anyone is a constructive attempt to define what the proper guidelines of political speech really are.

Everyone seems to say, "we need to be more civil!" without actually putting forward positive advice on what constitutes responsible vs. irresponsible speech. I may be a pessimist, but this Potter Stewart "I know it when I see it" approach to irresponsible political speech seems like a pretty ineffective way to fix the problem, because without any rules of thumb to go by, any attempt to condemn a politician's irresponsible speech is just doomed to be deflected as partisan politics.

I would love to see a list of common sense rules (similar to Michael Pollan's food rules) that serve as good reminders of civil discourse. What would you like to see on such a list? My first one, for example: "Never speak with the insinuation that your opponents do not have the best interest of Americans at heart." If we had a set of guidelines that both sides could appeal to, it would be a heck of a lot easier to call out the people that aren't acting well.<<

This is a worthy challenge. An easy starting example would be: no advertising imagery suggesting lethal violence or the threat of same. Nooses, guillotines, ammo, guns. But those are gimmes. I am sure readers have more creative and useful examples. If you send them in, I'll compile and share them. These could be useful as tests against which to measure upcoming ads, talk-show soliloquys,  etc.  (Below, fax sent to former Rep. Bart Stupak, because of his vote for "Obamacare"; image from TPM.)


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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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