Tag Archives: civility

Reviving Civility

A few nights ago, I participated in a panel discussion devoted to the revival of civility, as part of the annual Spirit and Place Festival sponsored by IUPUI. The evening began with a soliloquy of sorts on the subject by former Congressman/Statesman Lee Hamilton, then segued to the panel. I’m not sure any of us had especially useful recommendations for how we might inject mutual respect into political conversations, or ensure that those discussions are based upon verifiable fact, but we tried.

Since I have no idea how Americans of good will might revive civility, or rescue it from the Trumpian depths of Twitter and media comments sections, I took a somewhat different approach to the subject, which I am sharing, below.


When I was asked to participate in this panel, my mind went back twenty years. I was then the Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, and I had mounted a major campaign to promote civility and encourage more civil discourse about hot-button civil liberties issues. Several members objected. They let me know that they were upset–that they thought such an effort was inappropriate because they were convinced that an emphasis on civility somehow undermined, or was evidence of less than robust support for, Free Speech.

That misunderstanding is evidently shared by the Neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, the creators of racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic websites, and participants in proliferating Facebook confrontations and Twitter wars. They defend their vitriol as “Free Speech;” and disparage and dismiss civility as “political correctness.”

They couldn’t be more wrong.

This nation’s Founders understood that all ideas, no matter how noxious, should be available for discussion. They didn’t protect speech because they underestimated the danger bad ideas could pose; they knew how powerful –and damaging–ideas could be. They protected free expression because they understood that giving government the authority to decide which ideas are acceptable—what sort of speech should be permitted– was far more dangerous than the bad ideas themselves.

But that’s where civility comes in.

If free speech is to achieve its purpose—if it is meant to facilitate a process in which citizens consider and vet all ideas, consider all perspectives—we need to listen to each other. Insults, labeling, dismissing, racist “dog whistles”—all those hallmarks of incivility—make it impossible to have the kinds of genuine conversations and productive disagreements that the First Amendment is intended to foster.

Screaming invective across political or religious divides actually undermines the purpose of the First Amendment’s Free Speech provisions. Is such speech protected? Absolutely. Is it useful? Absolutely not.

There are multiple reasons for the recent rise in incivility, but the anonymity and distance afforded by the internet and social media are clearly important contributors. As many of you know, I have a daily blog, and I’ve found it necessary to impose standards of conduct for commenters. Civil disagreements are encouraged; ad hominem attacks, personal nastiness and unrepentant bigotry are not welcome and will not be tolerated, not just because they are unpleasant and hurtful, but because people engaging in those behaviors derail the substantive and instructive disagreements that people with different perspectives need to explore if we are going to live and work together.

Responding to a Facebook argument or Twitter blast with an insult may make you feel better, but it doesn’t advance the conversation, and it certainly doesn’t count as participation in the marketplace of ideas.

Defending obnoxious and uncivil behavior as “Free Speech” is the ultimate hypocrisy.





A Wake-Up Call Too Late?

Finally, the alarms are going off in what is left of the rational GOP. The question is: is it too late? Has the party slept through earlier signals and bells, hitting the “snooze” button too often?

Okay, enough with the strained analogy.

Bill Brock recently wrote a “must read” column for the Washington Post. For young people and those with bad memories, Brock, from Tennessee, served as both a Representative and a Senator from that state, and for four years, was Chair of the Republican National Committee.

I am just as concerned about the destructive tone of the Trump campaign as I am about its demagogic content. How can you hear what someone else is saying, no matter how important, when you’re shouting? How can you bring people into a constructive search for solutions to our national problems when you do nothing but belittle them, and even suggest they are stupid, weak or corrupt?

A truly free society, one that gives its citizens the responsibility of participation, can function only to the extent there is civil discourse. We can engage in a mutual search for solutions only to the extent that we agree a problem exists. That can never happen unless we talk to each other, listen to each other and respect the fact that honorable people can reach different conclusions. When that sense of comity is missing, we are at risk.

Before readers dismiss Brock’s column as just one more heart-felt but ultimately feckless appeal for civility, I would call attention to an important paragraph in which he identifies the structural elements—what he calls “root causes”— that have brought us to this (very unpleasant) place in our national life:

Shouting is only part of it. There are also root causes. They include, but are not limited to, the ever-widening gap between our two parties caused by redistricting abuses and the undeniable sense that the election process itself is being swamped by unlimited and too often undisclosed funds from a select few. There is one more I fear — the too-often cable-TV-driven sense that only the dramatic, only the negative, only the ad hominem attack can garner sufficient attention to assure electoral success. The public disgust is palpable, and rightly so, but in a more fundamental sense, the results are disastrous.

Redistricting. Unlimited and unreported money. The rise of sensationalist, propaganda radio and TV.

We can and should do something about these causes of our political pain. It won’t be easy, but we need to move from today’s pervasive gerrymandering to nonpartisan redistricting. We need a Constitutional Amendment to overturn Citizens United, and far more transparency about political funding.

And–most difficult of all, but also perhaps most important–we need to reclaim what has been called the journalism of verification. We need a journalism that fulfills its constitutionally-protected function of acting as government’s watchdog, a journalism that is trusted because it has demonstrated that it is trustworthy.

Let’s take Brock’s wake-up call seriously—and hope that it isn’t too late to restore both civility and a government that functions.


The Real Problem with Trolls

In a response to a prior post–made in the middle of a somewhat heated discussion generated by that post–a commenter complained that his contributions to the debate had simply been ignored by others, even though they’d been accompanied by links to what he described as “liberal” references.

As regular readers of this blog know, I rarely participate in the conversations triggered by my daily posts/rants. (I do read most of the comments.) There are two reasons for that, one practical and one more-or-less philosophical: the practical reason is that I have a day job, and I can’t afford the additional time thoughtful engagement would take; the “philosophical” reason is that the blog is intended to generate responses and in a very real sense, to allow readers to educate me–which many of you, especially my “regulars” regularly do.

But the complaint was that no one was responding to points made by this particular individual, and that such non-responsiveness–at least in the eye of the commenter–was characteristics of the disinclination of “liberals” to engage with those who disagreed.

To the extent that complaint is justified, I don’t think it’s a consequence of political orientation, conservative or liberal. I think the problem is trolls.

I firmly believe that trolls–and this blog has a couple of persistent ones–want nothing more than to stir the pot. They present themselves as angry and troubled individuals whose goals are limited to insulting and “bomb throwing.”  For whatever reason (I’m no psychiatrist) they are uninterested in genuine dialogue, so responding to them is a waste of time.

Given the amount of time they spend spewing, it’s a good guess that they don’t have what the rest of us call “lives.”

I firmly believe that responding to such people is counterproductive; it simply draws otherwise reasonable people into whatever game they are playing.

The problem occurs when people who aren’t trolls, but who may have made their points in fairly antagonistic ways, enter the conversation. Readers lump those folks in with the trolls, assume that they are uninterested in real conversation, and thus don’t take what they perceive to be the bait.

This is precisely why civility is so important in this context. When dissenting opinions are offered in a civil fashion, it invites dialogue and engagement. Civility is especially important online, because online discussion doesn’t allow us to see body language or hear tone of voice–the cues that we get in other contexts that flesh out the sender’s intended message and help to prevent miscommunication. It’s really easy to be misunderstood on line (especially for people like me, who tend to be rather snarky), which is why it’s so important to frame our online communications with care, and to avoid sharing our passions in a manner that comes across as offensive or insulting.

If the perfectly appropriate response to trolls–ignoring them–puts a damper on the exchange of ideas between people genuinely interested in engaging in conversation, it may be understandable, but it’s a shame.


Civility and Free Speech

At 5:00 pm today, I will participate in a panel discussion at the McKinney School of Law (my alma mater), focused on whether the Free Speech protections of the First Amendment tend to promote incivility.

Back in the day, when I was Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I mounted a campaign through the organization’s newsletter to promote civility. That campaign caused consternation for some members, who worried that an emphasis on civil discourse somehow undermined, or was evidence of less than robust support for, Free Speech.

They missed what I believe to be the central point.

Philosophers from John Stuart Mill to Alexander Mieklejohn have argued for protection of speech and the free exchange of ideas; they have seen the “marketplace of ideas” as the absolutely necessary foundation of the search for truth.  (As Mieklejohn famously said, People who are afraid of an idea—any idea—are unfit for self-government.)

The nation’s Founders understood that all ideas, no matter how noxious, should be available for discussion. They certainly didn’t protect speech because they underestimated the danger ideas could pose; they knew how powerful –and damaging–ideas could be. They protected free expression because they understood that giving government the authority to decide which ideas are acceptable—what sort of speech should be permitted– was far more dangerous.

But that is where civility comes in. If free speech is to achieve its purposes—if it is to encourage us to consider and vet all ideas, consider all perspectives—we need to listen to each other. Insults, labeling, dismissing, racial “dog whistles”—all those hallmarks of incivility—distract from and derail the kinds of genuine conversation that the First Amendment is intended to foster.

Screaming invective across political or religious divides undermines the purpose of the First Amendment’s Free Speech provisions. Is such speech protected? Absolutely. Is it useful? Not usually.

Civility, Civic Literacy and Public Service

There is a robust debate underway about what it will take to attract the best and brightest of our young people to public service. As someone who has taught public affairs for 15 years—and with several years of government service in my own background—I have a theory that I would sum up as “civility, civic literacy and a meaningful opportunity for service.”

By “civility,” I mean a collegial and supportive workplace in which partisan political considerations take a back seat to achievement of the common good. By “civic literacy,” I mean familiarity with accepted understandings of America’s history and constitution. And by “a meaningful opportunity for service,” I mean an approach to administrative practice that balances ends and means in pursuit of the public interest.

There was an interesting symposium on political civility in a recent academic journal. The articles wrestled with confounding questions: what is the difference between argumentation that illuminates differences and rhetoric that “crosses the line”? The consensus seemed to be that incivility is rudeness or impoliteness that violates an agreed social standard.

I’m not sure we have agreed social standards in this age of invective, but surely rhetoric that focuses on, and disrespects, persons rather than positions should count as uncivil. (An example of civility in political argument might be Dick Lugar’s often-repeated phrase “that is a matter about which reasonable people can differ.”)

One of the most trenchant observations came from a professor who attributed the gridlock in Washington and elsewhere to “partisan one-upmanship expressed in ways that do not show respect for those with differing views.” In other words, if your motivation is simply to beat the other guys–to keep the President from a second term, for example–and if that motivation outweighs any concern for the public good, civility is absent and governing is impossible.

The reason politicians no longer “respectfully disagree” with each other, the professor pointed out, is that they do not in fact respect their opponents. For a variety of reasons, they hardly know them, and it’s easy to demonize people you don’t know.

Add to that an even more troubling aspect of today’s politics, a lack of civic literacy abetted by disregard for fact and truth and enabled by partisan television, talk radio and the internet. Survey after survey shows that people on the left and right alike get their “news” from sources that validate their biases. Worse, we have lost much of the real news, the mainstream, objective journalism that fact-checks, that confronts us with inconvenient realities. In such an environment, it becomes easier to characterize those with whom we disagree as buffoons or worse, unworthy of our respect. It is easier still if we lack even an elementary grounding in the origins and philosophy of American government, a lack confirmed by one dispiriting survey after another.

There is ample research confirming the existence of a worrisome civic deficit. I have reported much of it in this blog. If nature abhors a vacuum, as the old saying has it, it should not surprise us that citizens accept the spin and outright fabrications of the pundits and “talking heads” who have political axes to grind.

When political discourse is so nasty, and regard for truth so minimal–when the enterprise of government has more in common with a barroom brawl than a lofty exercise in statesmanship–is it any wonder that so many of our “best and brightest” shun politics? Forget elective office–who wants to go to work for a government agency the very existence of which is regarded as illegitimate by a substantial percentage of one’s fellow-citizens?

Americans have spent the last thirty plus years denigrating the role of government and the value of public service to an audience ill-equipped to evaluate those arguments. Now we are paying the price for our neglect of civic education and our unwillingness to defend the worth of the public sector.

Americans have a bipolar approach to issues: it’s either all good or all bad. But government is neither. We don’t have to abandon critical evaluation of government’s performance, but we do need to remind citizens of government’s importance and value.

I firmly believe in the line from Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come. If we rebuild civic knowledge and respect for civility and public service, young people will answer the call.