Previous installments here and here. The question is whether the even-now ever so slightly fading talk about "civil" discourse means anything in practice. Today we have one more set of suggestions from readers. First, from a reader on the stakes in changing the political tone:
>>The incivility that typifies political and public life pushes people like me away from engaging in the public discourse and away from public service. In the private sector people are mostly polite because it's good for business and crucial to getting things done. The harshness that we find in the public political discourse is the result of self-selection: only the nasty and the really thick-skinned opt to engage in political life. I and many others are turned off by the nastiness and choose to disengage from the public discourse. I confess that I have abandoned the future of my country to the nastiest people around, both Democrats and Republicans. Let them play in the mud, I'm not interested.<<
'Wrong, but not bad':
>> How about this one: Talk of your opponent as someone with different views, beliefs or opinions that you think are wrong, but not as a bad person.
That to me has been the most damaging thing in our politics in the last 30 years; people cannot simply disagree with their opponent. They have to somehow paint the other person as being a bad person as well. This eventually leads to the kind of crackpot rhetoric we see from Beck and Limbaugh and Palin; that Democrats are not just wrong on something, but are actually conniving to do evil and nefarious things because they are, at base level, bad people. This kind of demonization is in the long run much more dangerous than the simple use of bombastic rhetoric because it can somehow justify, in the unstable mind, the impulse to use violence. After all, if one is targeting an actual "enemy of the state" (and trust me, many people really do believe that Obama is willfully and intentionally trying to destroy America), that makes one not a deranged loon, but a hero.<<
Enough with Hitler, Goebbels, Stalin, et al:
>>I have one to offer: Eschew hystical historical hyperbole. In other words, avoid equating your opponents and/or their programs to historical figure, acts, movements, or periods that are widely understood to be examples of evil unless you could make the case for the analogy with a straight face to a credentialed academic historian knowledgeable about the time period.
The more heinous the object of comparison, the more cautious you should be in invoking it. Words to use with extreme care, if at all, include:Socialist, Communist, Marxist, Leninist, Hitler, Stalin, Goebbels, SS, Cossacks, Holocaust, Pogrom, apartheid, blood libel, Crusade, cruxifiction, slavery, lynching, etc. Throwing these terms around casually is not only inflammatory, it's insulting both to your contemporary opponents and to the victims of the actual historical atrocities. Use historical comparisons only when they actually illuminate the discussion of contemporary issues. (Acceptable: Discussing the ways in which gay marriage bans are and are not like anti-miscegenation laws. Unacceptable: Calling NPR executive Nazis.)
As a first step to demonstrating your understanding of and commitment to this principle, promise here and now to stop using the words "Fascist" and "Communist" interchangeably, and to stop using them to refer to ANY contemporary mainstream American politician.<<
Don't assume anyone is anti-American:
>>I think your one piece of guidance [from a reader] may actually do the trick:
"Never speak with the insinuation that your opponents do not have the best interest of Americans at heart."
It reminds me of a Sunday School lesson with my kids. Jesus is asked which is the most important commandment: He answers: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
It seems that your rule would prevent Rush Limbaugh from saying:
"We are being told that we have to hope he succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father was black, because this is the first black president."
Sarah Palin from saying Obama "pals around with terrorists" or that Obama is "hell bent on weakening America."
Almost everything I can think of would be covered by your simple guidance: never imply that your opponents are traitors, advocate overthrowing the U.S., wants to harm U.S. citizens, is un-American, needs to be stopped by any means necessary, deserves the death penalty for their policy positions or isn't a "real American."<<
No more harping on the 'real America':
>>Civility in political dialogue, of course.
My pessimistic take:
For the deceitful, civility has no meaning.
My optimistic take:
All citizens are Americans. Anything that characterizes another American as not "on the team" is off limits.
So, to talk about "real America" or "taking back America" or treating one of your ostensible American teammates as a "target" is off limits. On the ground that it is absolute, unadulterated bullshit that no respectable teammate would ever do. This is actually a pretty easy measuring stick to apply. Wanting Obama (team captain) to fail? Not only unacceptable, we're beating the snot out of this guy in the shower...<<
On the other hand:
>>I like the idea of more civility in public life. I am pro-civility. But when your reader suggests that we "never speak with the insinuation that your opponents do not have the best interest of Americans at heart," s/he crosses that line that separates reasonable norms of expression from attempts to rule certain forms of political expression out of bounds.
Does everyone in politics, in fact, have "the best interests of Americans at heart"? It would be surprising if they did. American politicians are not, in general, less selfish, greedy, or corrupt than people in any other field or any other country. And if someone in public office is behaving in a selfish, greedy, or corrupt way, it doesn't help to pretend that he or she is merely a well-intentioned-but-misguided patriot.
Norms against invocations of violence are highly desirable. Norms against vigorous and sometimes personally insulting political argument have no place in a democracy.<<
The role of simple manners:
>>Civility-How about we simply go back to manners. Remember manners? Emily Post? Handshakes, where people look each other in the eye, hats off in buildings boys etc. Let's easy up on the profanity.
Boycott bombastic, self-serving media outlets, and take the time to call, email, text companies who advertise with those outlets, and or boycott those companies. My wise and sage 94 year old father would say, "hit them in their wallets".
We seem confounded about children bullying. Really? There is huge segment of adults that do that all day and into the night on TV, radio, on internet forums.... How about parents? What are our children over-hearing us say to one another? If the kids are hearing what that guy was spouting, it's a wonder there isn't even more hatred abounding. They bully cause the significant adults in their lives bully.
We are all responsible for what is happening. Until we all stop waiting for someone else to fix it, and get involved, it will not stop and we will only have ourselves to blame.<<
Journalists need to do more:
>>I haven't heard much introspection from reporters, journalists or talking heads on whether they should more consistently call people out (in real time) when they try to push an untruth or false equivalency. Those who don't see their job in purely cynical terms have the opportunity to set the groundrules, call foul when appropriate, and ultimately reduce the megaphone they give those who repeatedly cross the lines.<<
A few rules:
>> 1) No side has a monopoly on the truth.
2) Beware tribalism in politics. (Orwell might've referred to this as one of the smelly orthodoxies...?) Step outside of the (D) and (R) boxes. Think of the sharp, decent people one has met who vote differently than one does; think about the level of scorn one is truly willing to heap on them.
3) the Golden Rule works, as does the Hippocratic Oath.
4) Perceive, deeply, the dark side of a system that, arguably above all else, prizes victory in political competition. Perceive the effects of money on politics and of power on human decisions.
5) Find a hobby other than politics. I have fallen into this trap as well, partly because it is such an interesting subject and full of personalities and events that interest me, and it does have some impact on our daily lives (though that varies from group to group).
In the end, we are contemplating how we as a society will allocate material goods and services, and to whom we will grant the administrative authority to effect such allocation. That's it. If one's ears turn red on a subject like this, one has to step back and ask: seriously? seriously?? Even as a fed myself, I say, there is more to life. <<
>>Here's my take on guidelines for civil discourse:
Discuss only the topic, not the person making the argument.
Check your facts -- and recheck them. If you're unsure, don't use it (or acknowledge your ignorance).
Avoid hyperbole, unless obviously humorous.
Avoid violent metaphors and similes.
Never advocate violent action as a solution unless discussing an actual conflict or a declared enemy, but even then, be cautious.
Focus on reason, not emotion.
Acknowledge counterarguments, and respond with respect. (Insults can, and should, be ignored).
Try to persuade those who disagree with you, and don't incite those who do.
When a statement angers or annoys you, be aware of your emotions and exercise self-control in your response.
I'm sure there are more, but these would be a pretty good start, I think.<<
The Golden Rule applies:
>>Applying the Golden Rule(s) to politics is easier than in most circumstances (imo):
(1) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you...
(2) Do not do unto others that which you would not wish done unto you...
(3) If (1) AND (2) do not not seem applicable, you're either facing an implacable foe...
... unless, of course, the unilateral lack of civility by one party can justify the assertive reaction of another.
Isn't "mutual respect" an adequate definition? ... and then again, it takes two to tango (whether in step or not).
I had different image in mind: Civility is a two way street... but what happens when one side or the other treats it as a single-lane by ignoring the rules of the road... or when there is no agreement on which side of the road one drives on! Life as a game of chicken - or as a Mexican standoff - if awfully wasteful and destructive even if one of the sides recognizes and acknowledges the futility of it all.
It's not a game at all, in fact ... or at least not a very fun one.<<
The power of shame:
>>As with all values, an adult should know what is civil and not civil, by one's own standards, when one experiences it in one's own and others' behavior. Having this sense is as important as having "civility" defined. The same concept applies to "shame." Chinese say: To possess a sense of shame is akin to having courage.<<
Fair and balanced:
>>1. Serious news outlets should call out, as a regular feature, those whose stock in trade is to focus vile hatred on a specific politician day in and day out. Example: Andrew Sullivan's unhinged obsession with Sarah Palin.
2. News outlets as well as their pundits should be called on to apologize when they publish baseless partisan non-sense and fail to retract it when shown wrong. Example: James Fallows claims that Fox News had some ulterior motive in uniquely identifying a dead former government official as a former government official, when NPR was identifying him in identical fashion as FOX.
3. Include the following disclosure on the appropriate pundits when they pontificate about political violent imagery: Note- this author finds it perfectly reasonable that an admitted and unrepentant political terrorist holds a tenured position with a state and federally supported university where he instructs students. His/her claims to be shocked by violent political rhetoric should be considered in that light.___
My personal algorithm usually involves imagining explaining what I've done to either my mother, or my daughters, or both. This covers most instances of doubt.<<
No more 'ism's and 'ist's:
>>Only half serious but I am convinced that this suggestion would work wonders to improve the quality of civic discourse.
Invoke a ban for one year on the use in public discourse on any word that ends with "ism" or "ist"
( I would include in this ban a special case for the words "conservatives" "liberals" "democrats" and "republicans" All are in the plural purposely. Referring to a political group has the same effect of generalizing charges and allowing the accuser to avoid accountability for his/her speech).
What I've found following discussion strings is that the exchanges stick to the point on average through 2 or 3 posts before one of the posters uses as word that ends in "ism" or "ist" or one of the four words mentioned above . From that point the dialogue spins out to become a volley of a accusations, personal attacks and general ill will that usually ends 4 or 5 posts later when one or both have exhausted their standard-issue ammunition. There is always a note from one or both acknowledging that the other is sadly beyond redemption. And, then it ends, neither the wiser for having even bothered to engage the other.
In light of recent events, it might also have an effect on dampening the urge to violence. It is a lot harder to well up the anger to kill a person than it is to shoot an "ist."<<
And no more 'other' too:
>>My simple rule:
Do not dehumanize political/philosophical opponents as evil or "the other" or "not one of us" or out to destroy our nation, or family and our way of life unless you have a damn solid, provable reason for doing so.
How does one compromise, coexist or even communicate with "evil"?<<
>>Civility means balancing the right to express yourself with others' rights to express themselves. No more holding of ideological prisoners, but acknowledging the humanity of those who disagree with you.<<
>>Any language that attempts to delegitimize the other side should be taboo. I don't mean just the birther narrative; I mean language that characterizes the other side or government employees as enemies of the country or of the Constitution. Last week, Darrell Issa said, "The enemy is the bureaucracy." Who do you think the bureaucracy is? It's people like those Census workers CNN commentator Erik Erikson said he would shoo off his property with "his wife's shotgun" & Rep. Michele Bachmann said she would refuse to answer.
Erikson's reaction to the census, a Constitutional requirement, brings to mind my next taboo. Erikson said of the census, "The servants are becoming the masters. We are working for the government. We are becoming enslaved by the government."
So ditto for language that suggests the "government" or the other side is going to "take away your freedoms." ... Other euphamisms for acts of violence are just as bad. Sharron Angle's "Second Amendment remedies" comes to mind; she is providing a "Constitutional" rationale for violent acts against the government.<<
You have to criticize your own:
>> Mr. Fallows, can you see why publishing two letters that mention Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck as the examples of who needs to improve civility, and never mentioning Keith Olbermann or Sarah Bernhard or Alan Grayson or Paul Kanjorski -might lead someone conservative to doubt your sincerity? [The letters I put up here are representative of what came in, just for the record.]
From a different angle: Who do you think is more likely to listen to you, liberals or conservatives? Why don't you focus on liberal pundits and politicians? There you can maybe make a real difference, without the possibility of them feeling that you're just trying to weaken them politically. Let me see a real movement among liberals, saying (a) speak civilly about conservatives [include your list of suggestions.] (b) We're not kidding. If you won't, I don't want you in my party.
You have to mean it.
I personally would like a lot more civility in political discourse.<<
>>To have a more "civil" discourse we would need to come to some kind of broad based agreement on what "civility" means, who we want it from and how to enforce it. The best model for this I can think of is FactCheck.org on the factual accuracy of political players. The problem with their model is that it has, as far as I can tell, done nothing to actually change how truthful political discourse is. They do good work, but their theory of change is weak. If we wanted a CivilityCheck.org to do better it would need buy-in from all or almost all of the players and some form of censure that would actually get political figures to apologize or change their rhetoric.
Now, that would be a nice thing to have in an ideal, perfectly civil world. But I doubt such a thing could ever happen. I agree with the responses that focus on our side. We may never get everyone in the world to agree to the Code of Civility, but what if 5-10 liberal commentators started taking on incivility within our side? Unlike abstract debates on how to make politics as a whole a civil place I think there is a real chance that could have a measurable impact on the content of left-leaning media, and thus left-leaning readers. It isn't going to make everyone become civil, but it might do something.<<
>>Your correspondents on civility (and perhaps you, yourself) assume a level of reasonableness in public discourse that does not actually always exist. When, for instance, Dennis Kucinich inveighs against mind-control rays from outer space, the only reasonable response is, "You're an idiot." Or when Charlie Rangel doesn't pay his taxes, what can one say but, "You're a crook"? Ditto William Jefferson and his freezer cash. And when Clinton is shown to have had some kind of relations with Monica Lewinsky, how can one not say, "You're a cad and a bounder"? One more: former Representive Paul Kanjorski's explicit call to assassinate the now-current governor of Florida:"That Scott down there that's running for governor of Florida. Instead of running for governor of Florida, they ought to have him and shoot him. Put him against the wall and shoot him." (See The Scranton Times-Tribune.)
I know all my examples are from the Left; consider it a corrective. Your readers will enthusiastically supply dexterous examples. However, I'm willing to bet a doughnut that they will not be able to find a Sarah Palin quote explicitly advocating the murder (as opposed to the 'targeting') of a Democratic politician.
Of course, most politicians are not so far removed from either reality or normal standards of adult behavior. Still, any standard of civility that prevents one from calling a spade a spade is likely to be either ignored or used by ne'er-do-wells to mask their misdoings.<<
We are soft:
>>As a nation, we seem intellectually soft, vulnerable to the manipulative rhetoric of those who seek to influence our actions or beliefs to the benefit of their ideology, or their political ambition. This softness may be the result of the current economic state plunging us into survival mode. Perhaps it follows from the deep national disinvestment in education and its main consequence, the failure to prepare us for critical thinking.
Whatever the reason(s), we have become easy prey for the barrage of lies that permeate public discouse. The most grievious example I can think of is the idea of "government death squads" as we were asked to consider the issue of national health care. We need to remember that, for whatever reasons, many of our fellow citizens fail to read the fine print, relying, instead, on the voices from the radio, the television, the rally, the newspaper, to arrive at a conclusion. The people who belong with those voices should hold themselves responsible for the veracity of their words or we, as a nation, should find a way to make them do so.<<
It's not about being 'nice':
>>I don't think 'civility' in politics means 'being nice' or not saying things you wouldn't say in front of your 10 year old. The America political culture has devolved into a permissive, 'anything goes' free-for-all. It's a political problem that won't stop unless voters hold their elected officials accountable for misrepresentations, out of context denunciations, character assassination and general shallowness. That won't happen without a a leader who contrasts sharply with mendacity and shallowness. It won't happen with the news reporters and analysts covering politics with the play-by-play breathlessness of sportscasters, as they have the last few days regarding charge and counter-charge about political discourse. Obama, as President, is the only one with enough credibility on this issue and moral authority - i.e., relatively unblemished from saying stupid things - to step to the plate.<<
Or about being 'polite':
>>The idea that we need to define civility is just a red herring in my view. It will obviously vary between people. I don't include "polite" as a requirement for being civil but I'm sure others do.
What I expect are boundaries and when they get crossed, as I'm sure they will be from time to time, those people are called out for doing it. Today, it is the constant drumbeat, primarily from the far right who try to delegitimize their opponents, make wildly exaggerate claims, and use frequent allusions to the use of force that induce people to be fearful for their way of life and even their lives. While I'm sure I could find an example of this behavior on the left, it is principally coming from the far right and is endorsed, if only tacitly, by many on the right. In the sixties, talk of violence came principally from the left even though a few examples could be found on the right. Often this discussion tries to make most of us out to be morons. That we can't tell the difference in behavior or that we don't know that those responsible understand what they're doing and the potential ramifications.
I want to make sure that one of the victims in the Tucson shooting doesn't get forgotten. It happened once before when I saw the photo of the dying infant being carried by the firefighter out of the ruble of the Oklahoma City bombing incident. That photo turned what, for me, was at first just a remote horrible tragedy into a very visceral "punch in the gut" type reaction. Young children in the second floor daycare center, became incidental victims of Timothy McVeigh deranged anger at the federal government. As my son was five years old at the time and I worked for local government, my reaction was this could have been him.
Although my son is now in his twenties, I feel the grief and anger Christina Taylor Green's parents must be feeling right now...
Adopting new rules aren't the solution and gun control isn't of primary concern. It's not letting the proponents of fear and retribution to get away with it in the public discourse. The media has to hold their feet to the fire when unacceptable and unfounded claims, innuendos, and instigations are made either on the right or the left. Justifications of equivalency are just not valid and should never be accepted.
This has got to stop.<<
It's about guns:
>>... We don't need to harp on civility in political discourse, it's part of politics, but when the discourse turns to discussions of how the Second Amendment gives citizens the right to attack elected representatives and other officials of our government, then that should be condemned. I'm not saying that eliminationist rhetoric should be illegal but those who spout it should be condemned and held accountable for incitement to violence.
Let's focus on the eliminationist rhetoric, identify it in the public records, describe it carefully to understand where it is coming from, name its sources and influences, and then condemn them.<<
Being against ideas, not people:
>>Andrew Sullivan offered this suggestion last night that seems a pretty good minimalist starting point:
One simple norm is not making a violent threat in words or images that singles out any individual human being. Wage war against abstractions, not people. Is that so outrageous a suggestion?
I think you are too optimistic to claim that a norm against weapons and implied violence is a 'gimme' - I'd love to see it, but you'd run smack into right-wing gun rights with it, and it wouldn't get any further, I'm afraid. The pragmatic element that Andrew's suggestion gets at is that we use violence as a metaphor all the time in our discourse [sports, politics, business] - trying to discourage it at the abstract level is probably one step too far to hope for, and gets mighty close to the efforts decrying violent lyrics in songs and other entertainment. There's a big distinction, I know, between norms and laws - but I think I am with many folks who don't have a problem with the wielding of violence in art because I believe I value the distinction between the literal and the metaphorical.. Even though I'd be willing to sacrifice the loss of civility on the altar of a pretty wide tolerance of violent expression, I still hope some minimalist lines can be drawn that discourage personalized attacks with violent imagery.<<
Just tone it down:
>>I followed the link from your reader to the P.M. Forni book on Choosing Civility and read in the Amazon excerpt this gem:
"Courtesy, politeness, manners, and civility are all, in essence, forms of awareness. Being civil means being constantly aware of others and weaving restraint, respect, and consideration into the very fabric of this awareness. Civility is a form of goodness; it is gracious goodness. But it is not just an attitude of benevolent and thoughtful relating to other individuals; it also entails an active interest in the well-being of our communities and even a concern for the health of the planet on which we live."
It seems like a major obstacle to achieving this "gracious goodness" in relating to each other is an urgent rhetoric that asserts a "the time for politeness is over" narrative. People who eschew civility are making an argument that the issues are so important, and the stakes so high, that we cannot afford to be civil.
This reminds me of something Jonathan Chait said last year in discussing The Downside of Anger: "Alarmism is difficult to argue against, because it places you in the position of minimizing the evil of evil things when you're really arguing against probabilities."
If people are in a constant state of alarm, they are strongly disinclined to be civil, because they believe that an intolerable outcome is imminent. The remedy for such a mass state of alarm seems complex. At minimum, it probably takes the but we might start by lowering the volume on the voices of the loudest "alarm-ers".
But, if we're looking for aphorisms, one of my civility rules would be something like: "Superlative statements about what is at stake in an argument should usually be avoided." Or: "practice self-restraint with exaggerations that only serve to create fear in your audience."
It's hard to think of something in this vein that doesn't violate the normal, essential mode of political discourse itself, but, like other candidates you've posted, I'd like something that gets at a general trend towards de-escalation of rhetoric and that practices restraining our attempts to induce fear, panic, and alarm in our audience.<<
>>Very quickly on the civility question:
To me, this is all about good faith. The overarching narrative of the last two years is Obama acting in good faith toward Republicans, who act in bad faith in return because it benefits them. The quintessential example of this is health care, where people who once supported the mandate (put aside whether or ot it's a good idea) no call it a mortal threat to the Republic. That's bad faith. I think civility is actually the wrong way to respond to bad faith -- or at least bad faith should be pointed out fiercely.
On the flipside, we should respond to any sliver of good faith from an ideological opponent with good faith. I think one hopeful example (and I hope I'm not getting suckered) comes from Boehner refusing to appoint that blowhard King to the immigration committee. That's hopeful, and those of us who don't like what Boehner stands for should still recognize and try to find gestures of our own without surrenderng our principles.
Everything starts with good faith. All this talk of coming together, etc., assumes the people want to do that and will act in good faith to accomplish it. And I have just ask: name a single major "conservative" political figure -- elected or media -- right now that you would associate with good faith. For me, Robert Gates is about it, and he works for Obama. Maybe there are others. And no, I don't count David Brooks. Let him write a column as tough on Limbaugh as a Kos diarist, and I maybe I'll reconsider.
Obama, Hillary, Stewart and Colbert are a pretty good foursome to start with on the non-conservative side.<<
>>I also recently attended mediation training, used in courts here in Hawaii, a model for other places in the nation. Complex and intense process, but a few ground rules and principles stand out that may apply:
- No interruptions when another person is speaking
- No sniping or destructive comments
- Good faith commitment to the process (whatever it may be); listen and understand the other's perspective
Civility begins at home (this is me here).
What is going on in society --the amped up decibels in every level of discourse--is notable and troubling. Is reality TV responsible?...
Being the ED of a nonprofit, I am lately a big proponent of civility in the workplace--just trying to get everyone to crank things down a notch. It takes a lot of discipline, effort, and mindfulness. <<
Actually, you can say people don't have America's best interests at heart:
>>Something that I attempt to both practice and teach is the idea that criticizing a person's ideas is acceptable, but criticizing the person themselves is not. In my mind (and I realize that others may disagree), "Sarah Palin said something idiotic today" is a very different statement from "Sarah Palin is an idiot".
This bifurcation between what someone said and who they are is useful for a couple of reasons. 1: I think people are less likely to be seriously offended by the first, and so the vitriol level is less likely to be ratcheted up, and 2: It avoids the problem of making debate milquetoast and vapid. If I want to say that someone has said something that is
mindblowingly wrong, I still get to. I just don't get to draw any conclusions about them qua person.
Additionally, I'd like to point out what I see as a fairly major problem with one of the original suggestions. You quote a reader as saying " Never speak with the insinuation that your opponents do not have the best interest of Americans at heart." However, one of the primary thrusts of contemporary critical theory is the idea that for many people class identity trumps national identity, and that therefore, almost by definition, even if people
appeal directly to "the best interests of all Americans" they frequently mean "the best interests of my class". There are other schools of thought that examine the primacy of (eg) gender and race over nation. Your reader appears to want to put those discussions off limits.
One simple example of this is the recent debate over the extension of the Bush tax cuts. It's hard to have a serious discussion of the question "Why do people support the extension of the cuts for the top .25 percent?" if the answer "Because they put the interests of that group over the interests of all Americans" isn't even allowed to be a part of the discussion. (It may not be the right answer, but surely it's an answer that needs to be a part of the discussion.)<<
At this point all I can say is: thanks, and that will be all on the theme for now. Extra thanks to the Atlantic's Rebecca Greenfield for formatting these notes for the site.