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

By James Fallows

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.)

Stupak1.png


This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/01/a-very-good-question-what-does-civility-mean-exactly/69290/