Suggestions on 'Civility'

I asked last night for suggestions on what, exactly, it would mean to have a more "civil" tone of political discourse. We all have heard that we're supposed to nicer to one another. But how would we know we were doing so? The reader who originally asked the question suggested, "Never speak with the insinuation that your opponents do not have the best interest of Americans at heart." My nominee was, stop using imagery of violent death -- nooses, targets, and so on.

More from the inbox. To start:

>>I'd suggest that one shouldn't say something in a manner that one wouldn't also use at the dinner table with one's ten-year old kid. I'm not talking opinion here, just tone and verbiage. We should probably all assume that those we're speaking to won't have the sensitivity to understand when we're exaggerating and dramatizing our views. Do you for a minute think that Rush Limbaugh or Glen Beck would speak the way they do when they're having dinner with their impressionable kids (or grand-children)? Not a chance. The reality is that there are enough stupid, adult humans who don't have the intellectual or social IQ of a ten-year old; inspire them with a bunch of incendiary rhetoric and don't be surprised when bad shit happens.<<

From a reader in North Carolina:

>>What I would like to see is a code of conduct, to which elected office holders, candidates for office, and maybe even media pundits, could swear to uphold. We cannot make it legally mandatory, or remove people from their positions if they refuse to do so or if they violate the provisions of the code. However, it should be a matter of public record whether or not someone is or is not committed to abide by the code's provisions. We can rely on public opinion to eventually deal with those who refuse to commit to the code. As for violations of the code, there could be some sort of voluntary hearing or arbitration mechanism, and anyone who swears to uphold the code also agrees to submit any accusations of their transgressions to such a board. The board's findings would be made public, again subjecting the transgressors to the force of public opinion.

What should be in such a code? Speaking the truth, or at least not saying something they know to be untrue, would be a good start. Full disclosure of personal financial interests and sources of funds should be there as well. As you have implied, any ad hominem attacks should be strictly off limits, along with any incitement to hatred or violence or other harmful acts. There should be a basic commitment to the proposition that reasonable people can disagree, and express their disagreements reasonably.

This is part of it, but there is another big part that would be necessary as well: the citizenry. We would also need some mechanism where ordinary citizens could endorse such a code, commit to follow it themselves, and commit to not reward those in high places or with aspirations for such who violate its provisions. If there were tens of millions of Americans who were on record as endorsing such a code of conduct, and expecting it of their leaders, I am pretty confident that we really would see a big change.<<

A practical step:

>>Tucson's station might begin by changing their call letters from KG-U-N to something less provocative. It's a simple suggestion. I think it falls in the common sense category,<<

From a local government official in Maryland:

>>Let's not over-think this. If we're looking for specific "rules" governing civility, we can consult the manual. I'm not convinced, however, that rules would serve any purpose other than another starting point for arguments. Your reader's hope that objective standards would help us "call out" those who violate the rules seems to me an ineffective way to actually make people play nice. Civility isn't competition, but I fear that's where a rule-heavy system would take us.

I live in a community that has embraced for several years a "Choose Civility" campaign. We all have magnets on our cars showing how civil we are. We also like to complain about other drivers who cut us off or are otherwise uncivil. After all, hypocrisy is a fun, if easy, target.

But civility isn't about judging others. It's about judging ourselves. And we don't need rules to judge our actions, especially not those actions that are at their core about being nice and respectful. We only need a little empathy, a little self-awareness and the ability to honestly ask ourselves how we would feel if our own words or actions were turned against us. Nearly every society and religion has some variation on this idea (The Golden Rule, Ethic or Reciprocity, etc.), even the Baltimore Ravens, who provide this gentle reminder about conduct to their fans at every home game: "Don't be a jerk!"

That doesn't seem too hard.<<

And, from a reader in Tucson:

>>1) Speak and act privately and publicly as if the person you respect most is secretly observing (and judging) you.

2) Treat others as you would want them to treat you..... [In a followup note this reader said:]

I hate to say this, but there is an existential inevitability of violence here, of various kinds to be sure. I'm from the Detroit of the 1960s/70s and the same was true there, although for some different reasons. A common thread seems to be too many guns distributed over too few brain cells, plus a simmering inchoate anger at circumstances. Vague, I know, but it's in the air at times, and it's certainly not a white-collar approach to problem-solving. <<

Many more on hand, but that is enough for now. Actually, here's one more in this first haul, on the related topic of reining one's own temper. From a psychiatrist in New York:

>>Many years ago, I had a friend who collected all chipped china or glassware she could find. when she was furiously angry with her husband, and that is not an infrequent occurrence, she would take one of the chipped plates and glasses and go into the bathroom and throw it into the bathtub.

I think one of the things that might increase civility in discourse and behavior, is of course gun control laws. Throwing chipped plates into the bathtub never hurt anyone.<<

More ahead; thanks for these.

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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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