Civility Linkblogging: Tom Ridge, Rick Scott, and Convicted Civility

Civility LinkbloggingCivility Linkblogging is an ongoing series that highlights discourse about civility from around the Web. We glean the links in this segment from as broad a cross-section as we can manage of blogs, newspapers, magazines, and other online venues, from the United States and around the world.

This installment is largely eclectic. It features former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge’s thoughts on Vice-President Joe Biden and Senator John McCain, and Pepperdine University President Andrew Benton’s considerations of convicted civility. It also features an important insight on civility and power: Nadine Smith, writing about an incident in which Florida Governor Rick Scott was yelled at in a coffee shop, tells us that civility should never be an instrument used to silence disagreement or constrain the disempowered.

As always, if you have an article that you think would be right for future civility linkblogging posts, please do not hesitate to email it to us at editor@instituteforcivility.org. Include the title, url, and a short summary, and we will gladly review it for publication.

Now — the list:

When Civility Really Means Silence
Posted by Nadine Smith at The Huffington Post, April 7, 2016

I lament that we live in a world that exalts entrenched opinion over reason and facts, that rewards bullying over empathy. So I understand the discomfort expressed by a few of my friends who see her outburst as further evidence that the last threads holding our democracy together are being pulled apart from the left and the right.

But that analysis avoids any discussion of who holds power. These are not equal sides in a debate. The governor’s agenda has been uncivil and profane. His actions have cost lives.

Former Gov. Tom Ridge: Civility in Politics Matters More Than Ever
Posted by Tom Ridge at Time.com, April 8, 2016

While it is easy to lament incivility, I prefer the approach taken by Allegheny College, who this week named Biden and McCain the winners of its annual Prize for Civility in Public Life. I’m proud to be an honorary degree recipient from Allegheny and applaud college President Jim Mullen’s selection.

Ask anyone who has sat across a table from Biden or McCain, and they’ll tell you the same thing—that these are men of principle who hold strong to their beliefs and will argue passionately in defense of their positions. But they also understand that one need not demonize their opposition in order to effectively govern. Their remarkable careers speak to their ability to work collegially and effectively on both sides of the aisle and to rebuke the notion that Republicans and Democrats can’t get things done together.

A Little Civility, Please
Posted by Marianne Heimes at Savannah Now, April 11, 2016

I love my children, grandchildren, and great grandson. My hope is that they will live in a safe world, safe to walk down any street, safe to sit on their front porch at any time, safe to drive Highway 80 to the beach, safe to walk through Forsyth Park if they wish and free to vote for the candidate of their choice and know their vote counted.

Those are just a few of the many things I wish for them — and for you as well. …

My faith tells me we are going to be all right when all is said and done. I just hope that what is said and done in the future will be more civil. And if you wonder what exactly civil means, Webster describes it as politeness. Pretty simple when you think about it. Let’s all try it.

The Road to Restoring Civility
Posted by Shelby Taylor at Gainsville.com, April 12, 2016

Today’s university students will be called upon to solve some of society’s most critical issues. Whether it is through expert speakers, timely research, service learning opportunities or internships, our center provides critical programming that can help lay the groundwork for a more civil and open-minded approach to politics and policy.

The road to recovery starts with educating the next generation that indignation and insults have no place in public discourse and that we must respect and appreciate the opinions and the humanity of others.

Embrace Convicted Civility
Posted by Andrew K. Benton at The Pepperdine University Graphic, April 22, 2016

I ran across a phrase recently that I like very much: convicted civility. As soon as I saw those two words together I knew immediately and exactly what they meant. I admire strong convictions presented fairly and without elements of ad hominem attack in pursuit of truth and, even, fairness and justice. Lutheran scholar Martin Marty once said, “People these days who are civil often lack strong convictions, and people with strong religious convictions often are not very civil. What we need is convicted civility.” The time has come for convicted civility in all things.

I have held these personal thoughts for the past few weeks, uncertain if they would add much to any conversation. While I cannot precisely define the phrase convicted civility, I know what it means to me. It means that we can hear and process words with which we do not agree and that we can be unafraid to refute them with truth, courage and confidence. It means that as we encounter new thinking and information, that we are free to ask hard questions and to pursue answers to questions important to us. Questions should not be threatening, and answers should not be unassailable when given. Steel sharpens steel in the dialectic of learning and living.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and David Brooks on the Dangers of Single Storyism

New York Times columnist David Brooks offered his readers a gift, recently, when he pointed out a 2009 TED Talk by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “The Danger of a Single Story.” In that talk, Adichie discusses globalization, colonialism, and the mutual cross-cultural misperceptions brought about – as Brooks puts it – by what happens when complex human beings and situations are reduced to a single narrative.

 

 

For Adichie, the story of this form of tunnel vision is personal. She talks about the effects in her own life of growing up reading only books in which characters were foreign, and her youthful perception that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify. She talks about discovering African literature only later, and the way in which it saved her from having a single story of what books are.

She talks, too, about coming to college in the United States and finding herself on the receiving end of the single-story problem: a roommate who felt sorry for me even before she saw me because she had only a single story of Africa – catastrophe; and the power of a narrative that left no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.

The stories Adichie tells us are personal, but the problem, she says, is political. Single stories about peoples or places are tools by which those with power control how we understand and interact with those without:

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.

In other words, how we frame stories – what parts we choose to tell and which we omit – is an exercise in turning complexity into simplicity. And that simplicity, often as not, comes at somebody else’s expense.

David Brooks rightly connects this idea, which he calls single storyism, to the current state of American politics. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are the giants of single storyism, he tells us, reducing the complexities of the American political landscape to simple narratives: the perils of the other in the case of Trump, and the tyranny of the banks for Sanders.

Both candidates, says Brooks, have gained in power by erasing those narrative threads that are messy or that don’t easily fit. And both are part of a larger political problem that’s connected to civility: that partisanship limits our ability to understand how multiple narratives about issues from the minimum wage to police brutality may simultaneously be true.

But while Brooks starts us down the right road with his use of Adichie’s TED talk, he doesn’t quite get to the larger point. Adichie tells us:

It is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

The value of multiple narratives – about a group, from members of a group, from multiple members – is that the stories begin to form a web, offer us three-dimensionality, and tell us not just who people are and what they do, but that they are not easily reducible to a single, simple essence.

This is dignity in a nutshell. And it is also the core of civility.

Civility asks us to take others seriously – to see our neighbors not as props in the drama of our lives, but as fully realized individuals with identities, needs, and beliefs that must be accommodated, even as we would like to see our own identities, needs and beliefs accommodated.

When David Brooks offers an indictment of the single storyism of only being able to see a policy issue from one point of view, part of the problem he is identifying is practical. How can we balance competing goods, whether they are the needs of labor and management, or the needs of communities and law enforcement?

But that in itself is a kind of single storyism. Our policy positions and political opinions only represent part of the many narratives that encompass each of us as individuals, and each of our groups. And while the immediate concern may rightly be about making laws, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk shows us that civility is about something else: the question of how we can break through simplicity and embrace complexity as a tool that allows us to productively and peacefully coexist.

Point Taken from PBS Offers Debate with a Side of Civility

Point Taken logo, copyright by owner.Television reviews are not usually within our purview. But this month, happily, something interesting is happening in public broadcasting that invites some civility discussion. PBS, together with Boston’s WGBH, have premiered a new show called Point Taken that’s a version of a panel debate. But far from the Crossfires of the world, this debate isn’t about scoring partisan points. The show bills itself as an exploration of all sides of a key issue; and it emphasizes good listening, the determination of fact, and (perhaps most encouragingly) the search for merit in opposing arguments.

Point Taken is hosted by Carlos Watson: journalist, media entrepreneur, and founder of ozy.com. Each episode features a panel of four journalists and experts – two on the ‘pro’ side of a given issue, and two on the ‘con.’ The first episode, for example, had journalists Matt Welch and Isabel Wilkerson defending the position that the American Dream is alive and well. While columnist Tom Shattuck and financial expert Monica Metha argued that its expiration date has come and gone.

But the show adds some new features to the old back and forth. Watson and company survey their studio audience at the beginning and end of each debate to determine what they think about the issue at hand, and how many minds have been changed because of what they’ve heard. And Point Taken has partnered with the Marist Institute for Public Opinion to provide broader polling data that frames the debate in each episode.

In the most recent episode, which was on the subject of refugees, Marist polled on two questions: whether the United States should accept more or fewer refugees, and whether the United States has a moral obligation to accept refugees. Both questions became topics that the panel discussed. And the seemingly conflicting response – the fact that a majority thought that America does have a moral obligation, but that it still should accept fewer refugees – became a topic of discussion, too.

The show also takes a break from the debate in the middle to do what it calls fact checking. In the episode about refugees, for instance, Watson asked the panel how many refugees the United States accepted in 2015; and he asked them which countries accept the most refugees by percentage of their population. The segment runs something like a miniature trivia contest, and Watson even joked that it should feature the Jeopardy music in the background. But it serves two important functions: it shows off panel members’ level of expertise (and therefore helps audiences gauge their credibility); and it makes sure that audiences understand at least the basic facts of the topic at hand.

The level of respect is one of the show’s more exciting features. Panelists seem to come from all sides of the political spectrum, and they are drawn from a pool that is purposefully diverse both in professional and demographic make-up. And yet, though each of the participants certainly seems passionate about his or her point of view, that passion never translates into raised voices. It never translates into ad hominem attacks, or mocking, or patronizing responses, or even a shift onto obvious talking points. Instead, panelists’ answers are calm and detailed. And they respond to the substance of the question, or directly to what their colleagues have said.

Panelists do sometimes try to talk over each other. In both the episode about refugees and the one about the American Dream, as the show’s half hour wound down all sides seemed to want to get in one last point. But Carlos Watson’s strength as a moderator is keeping the peace; and he skillfully deescalated burgeoning tensions with a mixture of well-placed interjections and strategic changes in topic.

Even more encouraging than its tone, however, is the show’s ending. Point Taken takes its name from each episode’s final move, where panelists on one side of an issue must explicitly address the fact that there’s something to the other side’s argument. In the American Dream debate, for example, Tom Shattuck, who had been arguing that the Dream is dead, acknowledges that the debate has caused him to think about minorities’ relationship with the concept, especially given that for many prosperity has been long in coming, and some are only just starting to see it now. And Isabel Wilkerson, speaking for the pro-Dream side, similarly acknowledged that many Americans do feel a loss – do feel disheartened – by the perception that their generation is not as prosperous as their parents’.

Because of the respectful tone, and because of this emphasis on finding common ground, the show has seen some positive responses with regards to civility. One representative tweet reads like this:

And blogger Fred Harris, who was in the audience for the filming of the first episode, echoes that sentiment, writing that the best part of the experience was “good dialogue, among four bright in-touch people who know better than to shout over one another.”

Is Point Taken perfect? No. Debate is a necessary feature of our democracy, but it is also, by its nature, more adversarial than collaborative. The show tries to sand down some of the format’s rougher edges through good moderation and through its unique approach to closing statements. But there are other formats, like the dialogue approach that the Institute applies in its own Congressional Student Forums, that might better serve the purpose of lifting up public discourse.

Yet that said, Point Taken does a lot of things right. It’s informative; it promotes civic engagement through citizen education; and perhaps above all, it models the idea that we can have extensive disagreements about important issues and not only come away amicably, but come away with the idea that though we may not agree with the other side, they have good reasons for believing the way they do. And with so much television out there that seems to prefer the self-serving, the partisan, and the polarizing, all of this makes Point Taken something of a breath of fresh air.

If you’re interested in watching Point Taken, you can find full episodes here.

Civility in Nebraska’s Effort to Reform Redistricting

Because the national press hasn’t picked it up, you may not have heard the story. But there’s some very interesting civility news going on right now in the state of Nebraska. On Wednesday, Nebraska’s legislature passed a bill that would reform the state’s redistricting process, taking it largely out of the hands of the legislators themselves and empowering an independent commission. Emily Nohr of Omaha.com describes it this way:

The bill would create an independent commission of citizens to redraw the state’s political maps for six elected bodies: U.S. House, the Legislature, Public Service Commission, University of Nebraska Board of Regents, State Board of Education and Nebraska Supreme Court.

No more than five commission members could be from a single political party.

Don Walton of the Lincoln Star-Journal adds that the process would start with the submission of a series of computer-generated maps to the commission, proposing plans that could achieve relative population equity and meet other goals, such as adherence to county boundaries. The commission would then decide on a course of action and submit it to the legislature for final approval. If a plan is rejected, Walton writes, the commission would reconvene to offer an alternative to the Legislature.

Redistricting Reform in Nebraska
Nebraska’s Congressional Districts, as of the 113th Congress (2013-2015).

This comes in response to a particularly acrimonious redistricting fight in 2011 that resulted in personal disputes and some rancor among senators over their legislative district boundaries – boundaries that were, in particular, seen by many Democrats to unduly benefit the Republican Party in metropolitan Omaha’s 2nd Congressional District.

Not every elected official in Nebraska is pleased with the new bill. At an earlier stage in the process, eleven senators abstained from a vote to move the bill forward. And though Governor Pete Ricketts has not publicly commented on the plan, reports indicate that he has privately expressed some degree of opposition.

That said, contentious as it might be, both the legislative process and the plan for reforming redistricting practices in Nebraska indicate some positive news for civility.

Recently, data has increasingly suggested that redistricting conducted through independent commissions has not, as we might suppose, significantly increased competitiveness for congressional seats. But in the six states where independent commissions have been instituted, what it has done is decrease the frequency and intensity of the sort of legislative battle that precipitated Nebaska’s bill.

It hasn’t entirely done away with acrimony. But according to Peter Miller and Bernard Grofman in the U. C. Irvine Law Review [PDF], states with commissions tend to deliver district maps on time, and largely without legal contestation. And though the process remains marked with controversy, the resulting maps tend not to be altered or overturned during the decade in which they are instituted.

Moreover, the specific process by which Nebraska came to their new plan has been intentionally inclusive on a number of levels. As Don Walton writes, the bill is the product of years of cooperative work and negotiation by Sens. John Murante of Gretna and Heath Mello of Omaha – a Democrat and a Republican respectively. The nine-member independent commission in charge of the redistricting itself can have no more than five members – the barest of majorities – from any one party. And according to an earlier article about the plan, the members of the commission are chosen in equal measure by the state’s three legislative caucuses, which each represent one of the state’s main geographic areas.

Several senators, according to Walton, have raised concerns about possible urban domination of the commission in what is otherwise a highly rural state. Six of the nine commissioners would come from the vicinity of Omaha and Lincoln, the state’s two largest cities.

But no plan could be perfectly representative. And this one bars lobbyists, elected officials, party officials, and their relatives from serving on the commissions, potentially decreases the possibility of other kinds of conflicts of interest.

We here at the Institute do not endorse plans to do redistricting by independent commission – or by any other particular means. We are not a policy organization, and moreover we believe that the method by which states manage electoral districts must be highly specific to their individual circumstances – that each state must decide for itself.

But we are highly encouraged by any legislative move that puts fairness and the needs of voters ahead of the interests of partisanship and legislators’ job security. We are highly encouraged by evidence-based legislation that seems designed to curb acrimony in debates among lawmakers. Our interest is piqued by the bipartisanship that Nebraska legislators have shown here. And should Governor Ricketts sign it into law, we will be watching closely to see how this experiment in redistricting reform turns out.

Supreme Court Nominee Merrick Garland’s Pattern of Civility

The Institute does not endorse candidates or policies, and it certainly doesn’t endorse nominees for judicial appointments. But from time to time, as we read the news, we’ll see something from a public figure – or about a public figure – that’s profoundly heartening. It has happened over the past several months with both Bernie Sanders and Chris Christie, who have each had exemplary moments of civility. And it’s happening again right now, as we learn more about D.C. Circuit Court judge and newly-minted Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.

Supreme Court of the United States

In an interview after the nomination, NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenberg pointed out to President Obama that he could have chosen a candidate for the highest court who would be much more satisfying to his liberal base, and who might more effectively inflame Democrats’ passions in an election year. Asked about the logic of choosing the seemingly moderate Garland instead, the President said this:

This moment in our history – a time when judicial nominations have become so contentious, a time when our politics is so full of vitriol – I think particularly benefits from a man who by all accounts is decent, full of integrity, is someone who tries to hear the other side’s point of view, and can build bridges.

The President told Totenberg that Garland has shown himself to be a consensus builder, and that he believes, rightly, that we’re at a time where the more consensus we can forge, the better off we’re going to be.

Now, Garland is the President’s nominee. And the President has every reason to inflate his bona fides, including – or perhaps especially – his prowess as a civil guy. But we don’t need to take President Obama’s word on Merrick Garland’s civility. In the wake of his nomination, civility – born of integrity and diligence – has quickly become one of his most talked-about characteristics.

There is Republican Senator Orrin Hatch’s praise for Garland, whom he called a moderate and a fine man. And there is Chief Justice John Roberts’s assessment, at his own confirmation hearing, that anytime Judge Garland disagrees, you know you’re in a difficult area.

But more to the point, there are Merrick Garland’s former clerks and colleagues.

On CNN, Jeffrey Bellin, William & Mary Law School professor and former clerk to Garland said this of his process as an appellate court judge:

He works behind the scenes to find common ground. When called upon to do so, he will explain to other judges why the record, the facts and the law support his view. If they don’t agree, he will listen. The resulting opinions are carefully crafted to find consensus, reflecting the reality, not the rhetoric, of “rule of law.”

The most telltale sign of Garland’s influence is not blazing rhetoric; it is that a diverse group of judges will agree on the resolution of an otherwise polarizing case.

Former clerk Jay Michaelson, in The Daily Beast, wrote about his commitment to conscience over ideology:

There was not a single case I worked on with him, from the most mundane Federal Energy Regulation Commission matter to a 20-plus-year-old civil rights case, in which politics played into his considerations. Conscience, sure — Judge Garland often reminded me that there were human beings on both sides of these contentious cases—but never ideology.

In The Recorder, UC Davis law professor Albert Lin said that Garland’s goal has often been to resolve cases in a way where he could get consensus from the entire panel. And John Trasvina, dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law, said: I couldn’t imagine him ending a discussion based on whose voice was loudest or who had the most authority. More than to win, Garland’s goal has been to move some minds.

That’s a pattern of high praise. Individuals on all sides of the political spectrum, and more importantly people who have worked with him, have called Merrick Garland’s process deliberate and inclusive. They have indicated that he listens when others disagree with his assessments, and that he is more interested in decisions that are satisfactory to as many parties as possible than decisions that simply forward his beliefs.

The politics of Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination are complicated, both in terms of his own beliefs which are generally regarded to be somewhere on the progressive side of moderate, and in terms of the process of his confirmation, which is held up in no small part by the pending presidential election.

But for our purposes, all of that is besides the point. What’s important here is that in his professional life, Judge Garland seems committed to a brand of civility that prefers deliberation on the facts – and that prefers consensus and good communication over polarizing pronouncements. And regardless of where his nomination ends up, that’s a thing from which we all can learn.

A Note About the Rhetoric of Violence

Shepard Fairey MegaphoneWhile it is obvious that we should all strive for civility in our politics and our everyday lives, there is a certain way that it is a little bit of a tricky prospect.

On the one hand, as we discussed earlier this year, political correctness can be a civility red herring. Far from placing us in a position where we are claiming and caring for our identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process, political correctness is about sublimating our needs and beliefs in favor of the priorities of others.

Political correctness, for example, does not tell us that we should not harbor resentments toward shifting demographics in the United States – and it doesn’t tell us how we can think reflectively about usefully sharing our physical or political space. Rather, it tells us that if we hold unpopular biases, we should secret them away because it is not socially acceptable for those parts of ourselves to exist, and we will be shamed if we express them.

Political correctness, in other words, shuts down communication. And good communication is key for civility to flourish.

But political correctness is not the only, or even the most pernicious, rhetorical force that works like this. And though we should be wary of ideologies and their adherents when they call for us to silence ourselves, we should be especially wary when they call for us to silence others.

This, in particular, is the problem with ideologies that utilize violence as a rhetorical strategy.

Like political correctness, the threat of violence shuts down communication. It does so not by telling us that our needs are unacceptable, but by telling us that our needs are the only ones that matter – that the needs of others are of so little consequence that it’s only right to dismiss them out of hand.

Violent rhetoric achieves this in two ways at once. First, it’s factionalizing. It points us toward some external enemy, real or imagined, and insists: it’s us or them. We who are insiders must stand together as a group, because otherwise the outsiders will take what’s ours.

And second, it recasts the outsiders as monsters. It suggests that because they seem unlike us, or because they disagree with us, or sometimes even because they are weaker than us, their ideas not only have no merit, they are poisonous. The needs and beliefs of those outside the faction are not three-dimensional or indicative of any actual needs and beliefs at all; instead, they are meant only to harm us and weaken our social standing.

The result is a kind of paranoia: the notion that in a world of limited resources, we must stand with the people we identify as most like us because, certainly, that’s what the next guy is doing.

The result is petty hatred: the feeling that people who don’t share our characteristics – race, or religion, or politics, or whatever other factor – are somehow inferior, or disgusting, or debased.

The result is that violent rhetoric tends to become violent deeds: first meant to stop the supposed invaders, but ultimately to suppress even the softest whispers of dissent from within.

And the result is that while civility seems like such a simple thing so much of the time, in the face of prominent figures espousing violence and threats, the high road can sometimes feel very narrow, indeed.

In light of our current national flirtation with violent rhetoric, it might behoove those of us who wish to advance the cause of civility to ask some basic questions about the place of tolerance in a pluralist society. Writing in 1947, directly in the wake of one of the most tragic outbreaks of ideologically driven violence we have known, philosopher Karl Popper suggested that there is such a thing as a paradox of tolerance: that unlimited tolerance, as he writes, must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.

If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

Popper, writing at the dawn of modern laws against hate speech in Europe, suggested that we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal. That suggestion is obviously unsuitable to the culture and circumstances of the United States, and we don’t advocate it.

But he did make an important point. He said that we must distinguish between those intolerant ideologies that can be countered by rational argument and kept in check by public opinion, and those that reject rational argument – that forbid their followers to listen to anything as deceptive as rational argument, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists.

As advocates of civility, we recognize that communication is key. The possibility of achieving desirable outcomes through a civil process requires that I be able to make a reasoned case for my needs and beliefs to you, and that you are able to do the same for me.

Our political system exists largely within the realm where this kind of civil exchange is possible, even if we don’t always achieve it perfectly. But we must remain ever vigilant against encroaching ideologies that reject rationality in favor of fists. Our civility, after all, makes us vulnerable to the paradox of tolerance. And if we are not careful, within our desire to accommodate a plurality of voices, we potentially plant the seeds of civility’s demise.

Image: “London Mural” by Shepard Fairey. Photograph by George Rex via Flickr, licensed CC-BY-SA.

Anaheim, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Problem of Escalating Violence

Stop_Klan_Terror
Image by Michael Scott Van Wagenen

This past weekend has, once again, provided a sad example of the urgent need for civility – not as a means of policy negotiation or a form of politeness, but as an antidote to hatred and violence.

This is what happened: last Saturday, at Pearson Park in Anaheim, California, members of the Ku Klux Klan clashed violently with counter-protesters at what Klan supporters described as a white lives matter rally.

According to reporting from Vibe.com, the rally was aimed at raising awareness against “illegal immigration and Muslims”. Protesters arrived on the scene hours before the event was scheduled to begin, and as Klansmen exited their SUV, donning Confederate flag patches, the counter-protesters, who were reportedly armed with two-by-fours, approached them.

The resulting melee left three people stabbed and 13 people arrested.

As The New York Times reports, one Klan supporter waved a flagpole bearing the American flag as a weapon. Klan members carried signs with slogans including “White Lives Do Matter Say No To Cultural Genocide.” And one carried the Confederate battle flag.

The protesters seem to have been instigators of the physical assault. And in one video of the violence, after the Ku Klux Klan SUV had sped away, one stood over a stranded Klan member and, enraged, yelled: Your own white people left you!

In an interview with Southern California radio station KPCC, Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait said that this sort of incident is not an accurate reflection at all of who we are in Anaheim. He called Anaheim one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States and a city of respect and tolerance and kindness.

But while everything Mayor Tait said may be true of Anaheim under ordinary circumstances, if we can learn anything from what happened, it’s that denial and an affirmation of the people’s generous spirit is not enough. Violence like this is not an isolated event. It exists as part of an escalating cycle of hatred. And, sadly, it has deep roots in the United States.

Even just in Anaheim, The Los Angeles Times reports, there is a long and troubling history with the Ku Klux Klan. They write that Klansmen were once the dominant political force in Anaheim, holding four of five City Council seats through the early 1920s, and drawing tens of thousands of participants to their rallies.

And they write that in 2003, an eight-foot cross was burned outside the home of a black man.

But even this is not the most immediate context for what happened at Pearson Park. If we pay attention to the rhetoric of the Klansmen, we find its roots much closer to home – in the incivility and angry rhetoric that characterizes our current presidential election cycle.

The Klansmen in Pearson park claimed to be concerned about Muslims and immigrants. Well, over the past several months, we have seen specific language from presidential candidates that vilifies both groups: we have heard proposals to ban all Muslims from entering the United States; claims that immigrants from Mexico are rapists and murderers; and in the context of the Syrian refugee crisis, suggestions that the United States should only accept immigrants who can prove that they are Christians, because non-Christians are more likely to be violent extremists.

The Klansmen called themselves a “white lives matter” protest. At campaign events, we have seen physical altercations between Black Lives Matter activists and rally-goers; we have seen calls of all lives matter – some well-intentioned, and some not; and we have seen candidates repeatedly deny the existence of the pattern of police violence that spawned the movement in the first place.

And the fact that this group identified itself as Klan-affiliated at all is not insignificant. Recently, we have seen the media offer broad publicity for the political endorsements of white supremacist leaders like Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. Not positive publicity, but much more airtime than most other political endorsements garner.

The problem at Pearson Park – as Anaheim’s Mayor Tait seemed to understand in the framing of his comments – is not the impulse to stand against hate. That is invaluable. The problem is that while the impulse to meet hatred with violence may seem satisfying in the moment, it is profoundly unproductive. It crystallizes the most intolerant feelings and impulses on every side, it leads to escalation, and it shuts down the possibility of communication. No amount of beating can expunge hate.

But neither can the response to this incident be nominal civility via another impotent cry of “can’t we all just get along?” There is always need for greater kindness and more courtesy, but requiring we not say those things that might offend leads to frustration, not resolution. Which is why scorn for political correctness has been such an effective campaign tool in this current election cycle.

Instead, one way forward may be the sort of civility that allows us to perceive the humanity in those we think of as our enemies, and to take their needs and beliefs seriously. According to The O.C. Weekly, one speaker at a peace rally following the incident in Pearson Park invoked the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quoting the slain civil rights leader when he said, “Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.” This is on the right track.

But as that same article suggests, it may be more helpful to recall Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech in 1967. There, King reflects on the value of compassion and nonviolence. As he says, it:

Helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.

And this is ultimately key. As we saw this past weekend, violent words breed only more violent words and ultimately violent deeds. But if instead we meet hatred with a question – if we require our opponents to account for themselves and their hate – we humanize them, and we humanize ourselves to them.

Change by this route is slow, and it will frustrate us at every turn. But it is a process of teaching our opponents to see their own positions as we see them. And that, more than any violence, has the potential to undo hate.

Antonin Scalia’s Indelicate Brand of Civility

Justice Antonin Scalia
Photo by Stephen Masker, CC-BY

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died unexpectedly this past Saturday, is not someone whose name we usually associate with civility. Reflecting on his life for The New York Times, Bruce Allan Murphy, law professor and author of Scalia: A Court of One, writes that he changed the United States Supreme Court… more than President Ronald Reagan could ever have foreseen when appointing him. And he writes about the importance of his advocacy of “originalism” and “textualism” – the theories that judges should decide cases according to the “public meaning” of the words in the Constitution or its Amendments as understood by the American people in the state constitutional ratifying conventions.

But as Scott Lemieux of The Guardian said on Sunday: as enormous as his influence on American jurisprudence and American public culture has been, Antonin Scalia’s legacy is in many ways one of polarization.

Scalia’s public persona was that of provocateur, and he was perhaps best known for being colorfully undiplomatic and eminently quotable. Sometimes his penchant for provocation ran toward the crass, like in 2012, when he was asked by a Princeton student about his moral judgment of homosexuality, and he responded: if we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder?

Sometimes his provocation turned personal, straying into the territory of ad hominem attacks. As Bruce Allan Murphy writes, he called Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s 1989 opinion in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services “irrational,” “totally perverse” and “not to be believed.” And he belittled Anthony Kennedy’s 1992 opinion in the Lee v. Weisman school graduation prayer case as “psychology practiced by amateurs” and “incoherent.”

But as often, he was wickedly incisive in his critiques. As in 2005 when, in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., he defended his judicial philosophy by dismissing the idea of moderation on the bench. We say we want moderate judges, Scalia told his audience [PDF], but:

What is a moderate interpretation of the text? Halfway between what it really means and what you’d like it to mean? There is no such thing as a moderate interpretation of the text. Would you ask a lawyer, “Draw me a moderate contract?” The only way the word has any meaning is if you are looking for someone to write a law, to write a constitution, rather than to interpret one.

Yet despite all his bluster – despite the decisions (and especially the dissents) that earned him a reputation as a warrior in the conservative cause – Scalia was in his own idiosyncratic way an advocate for a particular brand of civility.

In his dissenting opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges – the case that legalized same-sex marriage across the United States – he wrote [PDF] that the most unfortunate consequence of the majority opinion was that it shut down debate:

Public debate over same-sex marriage displayed American democracy at its best. Individuals on both sides of the issue passionately, but respectfully, attempted to persuade their fellow citizens to accept their views…. Win or lose, advocates for both sides continued pressing their cases, secure in the knowledge that an electoral loss can be negated by a later electoral win. That is exactly how our system of government is supposed to work.

Until, he said, the courts put a stop to it.

Whatever else readers may think about the case or the tenor debate in the states that led up to it, Scalia’s point here is fundamentally about civility. What he calls for, to paraphrase the Institute’s definition, is disagreement without disrespect, and negotiation in the face of deeply rooted and sometimes passionate differences of opinion. Policy-making is an adversarial process, he tells us. But it’s supposed to be that way. The point of civility is not to eliminate conflict in public life, but to make it bearable, productive, and as useful as possible for all parties.

This is something we see in other aspects of how he conducted himself. In a 2013 interview with Jennifer Senior in New York Magazine, Scalia talked about how he chose his clerks. His preference, he said, is for clerks whose predispositions are quite the opposite of mine — who are social liberals rather than social conservatives. The advantage of that, he said, is productive debate: that kind of clerk will always be looking for the chinks in my armor, for the mistakes I’ve made in my opinion. That’s what clerks are for — to make sure I don’t make mistakes.

And what’s true for he and his clerks is also true for the court as a whole. Writing about his loss, friend and fellow Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had this tribute:

When I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots — the ‘applesauce’ and ‘argle bargle’ — and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion.

And at the end of the day, as Scalia told Jennifer Senior, everybody I’ve served with on the Court I’ve regarded as a friend. Some were closer than others, but I didn’t consider myself an enemy of any of them. His approach to deliberation, in other words, is a reflection of his approach to public policy: adversarial and contentious, but conscious of avoiding the uncivil mistake of confusing opposition for enmity.

The fact of the matter is that, yes, Justice Antonin Scalia is a deeply polarizing figure in our polarized political landscape. In no small part because he was so colorful and so quotable, he is for many American progressives singularly villainous. And undoubtedly in part for that same reason, he is for many American conservatives singularly heroic.

But both of those characterizations miss the point of Scalia in this regard: as much as any political ideology, his commitment seems to have been to a process by which, through ardent but respectful disagreement, we come to decisions that are as thoroughly examined – and as well made – as they can possibly be.

His civility wasn’t the sort that manifested as politeness. But for all his penchant for provocation, we may be able to learn a thing or two about civility from Antonin Scalia.

Recent Poll Confirms: Civility Matters

AmacheChartWe here at the Institute all already knew it was true, but it’s confirmed: Americans do in fact care about civility. According to a recent poll conducted by communications firms Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, with KRC Research, the great majority of likely voters in the upcoming Presidential race say that they care about the civility of their candidates, and say that civility will make a difference in who they vote for when they go to the polls.

Ninety-three percent, in fact, say that a candidate’s tone or level of civility will be an important factor for them in the election. Of those, more than half report that it is a “very” important factor. And more than half also report that the civility of the race makes a difference in how enthusiastic they are about voting at all.

The poll shows some relatively small differences in results along party lines. Voters who identify as Democrats seem to be more emphatic about the importance of civility, with 61 percent reporting that it is “very” important, to Republican voters’ 44 percent. And voters who identify as Democrats seem to see the current tenor of the election as being slightly more uncivil than their Republican counterparts, with 60 percent reporting that this is the case, as opposed to 55 percent.

More interesting in this regard, however, is how members of each party perceive the civility of the other:

There is a noticeable split in their reaction to the presidential debates. Majorities in both parties view the Republican debates as generally uncivil but nearly two-thirds of Democrats see their own party’s debate as civil, while nearly half of Republicans say the Democrats’ debates have been uncivil.

The purported incivility of the Republican debates seems to boil down to one clear factor: the presence of Donald Trump. Members of both parties perceive Trump to be the least civil candidate in the Presidential race, with 79 percent reporting that this is the case.

But in terms of the Democratic debates, the cause of the split in perception is less clear. Voters may perceive Hillary Clinton as uncivil, but not nearly in the same numbers as Donald Trump.

One possible cause of this split is the type of implicit bias we’ve discussed here on the blog before. In December, we reported on a study by political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood that suggested that the system of political parties in the United States increasingly resembles a form of tribalism, where party affiliation bleeds into personal identity and affects seemingly non-political aspects of our lives like our perceptions of the sort of people who make appropriate friends, or even appropriate mates for our children.

Iyengar and Westwood used a computerized test to reveal embedded, unconscious partisan biases: that test-takers who identify as Republicans and conservatives code things associated with the Republican Party as “good” and things associated with the Democratic Party as “bad”; while for Democrats and liberals, it is the inverse.

This suggests a kind of blind-spot for politically engaged Americans – for the sort who identify themselves as likely to vote, and who follow the primary debates closely enough to have an opinion. Among people who fall into this category, it seems probable that partisans on the Democratic side would perceive their own debates as more civil than they actually are, while Republican partisans would perceive them to be less civil.

In terms of Republican debates, in other words, the perception of Trump as uncivil is enough to balance out implicit biases. While for perceptions of Democratic debates, implicit bias triumphs and the truth about their relative civility probably falls somewhere in the middle.

In any case, Weber Shandwick’s Civility in America study makes encouraging news for civility advocates, no matter their party preference. It suggests that Americans would largely be amenable to a shift in tone among candidates for public office. And with three quarters saying that the media has a responsibility to decrease incivility, it suggests that Americans would applaud a shift in tone among news organizations, too.

Nothing about this study offers a specific way forward to a different kind of political climate in the United States. But given just how pro-civility participants in this study seem to be, it does confirm what we at the Institute have been saying all along: that a way forward to a more civil politics is in fact within our means.

Govinfo.gov Shows Us the Work of Governing

In the heat of the presidential primary season – amid ballots and debates, name calling, lawsuit threats, and no small amount of controversy about the value of the coin-toss as an electoral measure – it seems important from time to time to take a step back from both the sensationalism and the seriousness of choosing new elected officials and remember why we do it in the first place.

It’s easy, given the volume and intensity of media coverage that the presidential race receives, to forget that it’s not the only – or even the most important – feature of the American political landscape. The fact is that even as ballots are being cast, the work of governing – of setting, implementing, and enforcing policy – is still chugging along.

Govinfo.gov Shows Us the Work of Governing

There is no better reminder of this than the fact that, this past week, the Government Publishing Office (GPO) released a new online tool – govinfo.gov – that allows any interested citizen to track records of what the various branches of the Federal Government are up to. It’s like Google for government documents, said the GPO’s spokesperson, according to Roll Call:

Users can access the Congressional Record, track the course of legislation or perhaps dive into a treasure trove of information specifically on President Gerald Ford.

Government geekery aside, anyone from the general public may punch out “Obamacare” and get a copy of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — the agency’s most popular document at 14 million downloads in the last six years.

This new system is not an innovation so much as it is an evolution. For years the GPO has maintained FDsys, an online archive that has afforded the public searchable access to Federal Government documents. But govinfo.gov is much more robust. According to the GPO-provided overview of the system, it offers an overall enhanced user experience and a whole host of new features that make searching both easier and more powerful. Some of them include:

  • a new modern look and feel,
  • the capability to link related content,
  • two new ways to browse content: alphabetically and by category,
  • a new open-source search engine,
  • enhancements to the search filters, and
  • more options for sharing pages and content on social media.

Beyond the hype, govinfo.gov does in fact offer a user-friendly inoculation against the tunnel vision of the election season. Users can certainly find the kinds of historical documents Roll Call talks about. But perhaps more relevant for creating and maintaining an informed citizenry, it allows users to search by date, pulling all documents from the last day, week, month, six months, or year.

In the last seven days, for example, govinfo.gov tells us that one bill was introduced in the House of Representatives concerning research into dyslexia, and another was introduced to authorize funding for the Coast Guard. It gives us documents related to cases heard in Federal Court across the United States. And it gives us access to a dozen new Congressional Reports – explanations of pending bills that include information about their contents, potential effects, and budgetary impacts.

Moreover, it allows users to refine and filter search results. So if we only want congressional reports in our seven-day period, or if we only want documents produced by one single organization or author, we an easily find that information as well.

Govinfo.gov is basically technical. The documents provided by the GPO are the archival records of the Federal Government, and as such tend to be long and sometimes difficult to follow. But even a quick search of the headlines – of the names of what has been entered into the Federal record in the past week, or of what kinds of bills have just passed or are still pending – gives us a lot of information.

Part and parcel of civility is being informed. In order to be engaged with the process of governing, and in order to have the kinds of thoughtful opinions about which we can have a substantive debate, it is imperative that we know what kinds of options are actually on the table. We can garner a lot of this from the news. But sadly, in a media climate where only the most sensational stories gain headlines and where, even in a twenty-four hour cycle, there isn’t a lot of room for nuance, the news will only take us so far.

Govinfo.gov fills some of that gap. On the one hand, the information it returns isn’t sexy or particularly entertaining. But it does serve an important purpose. It highlights just how little most of us know about what the Federal Government actually does. And it remedies that situation, allowing us to see what is politically feasible and what is politically current so that we can make better decisions about what we believe, what policies we support, an even who we plan to vote for in the presidential primaries.