Tag Archives: civility

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.




Debate and Hate

Coincidences over the past few weeks have made me think a lot about civility.  A colleague and I were asked to lead an after-play discussion on that topic at the Phoenix Theater; we disagree politically, but have often commiserated about the increasingly toxic tone of public argumentation.  I later participated on a panel at Butler University on the same subject.

And then there was the appalling conduct of the anti-healthcare Tea Party demonstrators in Washington who greeted Andre Carson and John Lewis with the “N” word, called Barney Frank a “faggot” and actually spit on other Representatives.

Locally, we’ve had another eruption of nastiness aimed at people who work at Planned Parenthood. Not satisfied with picketing the organization’s clinics, these protestors have taken to disrupting residential neighborhoods by screaming obscenities and threats at the homes of Planned Parenthood staff members and volunteers.

Now, I would be the last person to deny these folks their First Amendment right to express their opinions, and to do so in ways that I personally find repulsive.  But I can’t help but wonder what these angry and hostile people think they accomplish with such behaviors.

Take the attacks on Planned Parenthood. I understand being opposed to reproductive rights for women (and let me hasten to say that most opponents of abortion rights do not engage in these tactics), but Planned Parenthood is primarily about women’s health, not abortion. It provides cancer screenings, testing and treatment for STD’s, along with contraceptive advice and education. (In fact, nearly 95% of Planned Parenthood’s work is focused on pregnancy prevention; ironically, that means that no organization does more to reduce the actual incidence of abortion.)

Do the people screaming all night in front of the homes of Planned Parenthood staff members and volunteers really believe that Indiana would be a better place for women and children and families if the organization stopped serving its nearly 90,000 mostly low-income patients with pap tests and birth control and treatment for STDs?  Do they really think any other provider would fill that void? Or are they simply willing to sacrifice women’s health in order to get their way? 

For that matter, do they really think these tactics will help them get their way? Do they think this is how you persuade other people of the merits of your position?  

I sometimes have to remind myself that we live in uncertain and anxiety-filled times; a certain amount of irrational behavior is understandable, if unhelpful. I do recognize that a very tiny percentage of Americans actually engage in these despicable behaviors. My concern is that these expressions of bile are doing real damage to our ability to engage in genuine debate.

While few partisans are spitting on elected officials or threatening local volunteers, many more are engaging in fact-challenged arguments and distortions in an effort to win political points. Health insurance reform will not allow government to euthanize granny. Planned Parenthood is not encouraging young women to abort.

It’s time to get a grip.