Civility Blog

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.

Civility Linkblogging: Town Halls, Debates, Iowa, and Indiana

Civility LinkbloggingThis post is part of 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 month, with the Presidential primary season well underway, the news is moving particularly quickly. But despite that — or perhaps because of it — it seems particularly important to pause and consider the civility implictions of all that is happening, even after the fact. In this edition, therefore, we have discussions that touch on prior primary debates and townhalls, some reflection on the Iowa caucus, and a discussion of how any of the candidates should act if they should win the office.

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:

Senators Laud Civility Counts For Improving Public Dialogue
Posted by Dan Carden at NWITimes.com, January 26, 2016

Chuck Hughes said civility is needed now more than ever in households, workplaces, schools and basically everywhere people gather.

He said it’s easy to be civil; all it takes is being mindful of what you say, what you do and how you act toward your family, friends, neighbors and strangers.

“It costs nothing, you don’t have to join anything, there’s no initiation, there’s no fee,” Hughes said. “It’s simply what is expected of us.”

That civility message appears to be resonating throughout the Statehouse during the 2016 legislative session.

Focusing on What Really Matters
Posted by Carolyn Lukensmeyer at The Huffington Post, January 26, 2016

Regardless of whether a republican, a democrat or an independent becomes our next president, they will face a divided country and an even more divided Congress, and the only way they – and therefore we, as a country – will be successful is to work together. Disagreements are going to happen – it is simply a fact of life. But the bigger issue is having someone at the table who is willing to listen to all sides and to find a solution that works.

The president needs to be able to work with Congress – both House and Senate and democrats as well as republicans. He or she also needs to be able to work with fifty governors who have issues and concerns that impact the federal government. At the end of the day the man or woman who succeeds President Barack Obama will need to work with people with differing viewpoints across the US, not to mention the world. And that means having the ability to listen, reason and problem solve for the greater good.

Democrats Model Political Civility in Iowa Town Hall
Posted by Jules Witcover at NewsOK.com, January 27, 2016

The approaching Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary eight days later may well prolong the Clinton-Sanders competition well into the state contests in the South that her campaign has touted as a firewall for her formerly presumed coronation as the Democratic nominee.

If so, it’s to be hoped that the civility of the Drake University town hall, and its substantive content, will continue to be the pattern.

Let’s Hope For Civility in Elections — Local and Beyond
Posted by Jeffrey Jackson at Owatonna.com, January 27, 2016

There is little doubt that there is a frustrated electorate here in Steele County as well. We’ve seen in past elections, including the most recent school bond referendum in Owatonna, as well as in the letters to the editors those elections have generated. And we fully expect that some of that frustration will be voiced by voters this election cycle.

That being said, we seriously doubt that the candidates who have thrown or will throw their hats in the electoral ring, either for re-election or to oppose an incumbent, will play upon that frustration or embrace the mantle of anger that national seem so willing to do. If past elections here are any indication, then this upcoming local election cycle will be one marked by civility.

And why? Because the ladies and gentlemen running for office are more than just opponents in an election. They are also fellow citizens, neighbors and in some cases, friends. That kind of connection breeds civility.

Iowa Caucus 2016: Six Ways to Show Civility
Posted by Jay Byers, and others at The Des Moines Register, February 1, 2016

Remember that everyone has a different life experience and therefore a different lens through which to see the world. We believe that influencing others and moving conversations around critical issues forward in meaningful ways requires respect for others.

Freedom of speech is an indispensable American value, and we have an incredible opportunity to use our freedom of speech to affect the future. Here in Iowa, we are privileged to have many opportunities to meet presidential candidates and surrogates, and to be at the heart of political discourse. As the four civic organizations that comprise the Show Some Respect campaign, we encourage Iowans to be civil. Let’s show the world more of that “Iowa nice.” Hopefully others, including the candidates, will follow our lead.

Here are six ways to demonstrate civility during election season.

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.

A Note On the Passing of Justice Antonin Scalia

Opposites attract they say. And having an opposite also pushes us to better understand our own positions.

That’s the truth for us as the two co-founders of the Institute. We initially believed we were supporters of the same political party. We were wrong. The day we realized that we thought differently is the day we began to conceive of an Institute for Civility in Government. And in the friendship between Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, we cannot help but see ourselves.

They vacationed together, they debated together, and they worked together on the Supreme Court, all while respecting each other’s point of view. The two of us, Cassandra and Thomas, have also worked together, debated together, and vacationed together. And yet we think very differently from one another when it comes to politics, philosophy, and a lot of other things, too.

It’s these differences that have helped us understand our positions and ourselves better. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg says of Scalia:

We disagreed now and then, but 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. He was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober judge laugh.

Isn’t it a shame that the immediate and constant attention of our country is focused on the rancor about how Justice Scalia will be replaced on the Court rather than first celebrating his life, mourning with his family, and laying him to rest? The civility that we try to promote is a force that would allow us to set aside political turmoil, at least long enough to stop and give thanks for the man’s public service.

We as a nation should rise to this occasion and take the time to reflect on Justice Scalia’s important contributions to American public life and on his loss as a fellow human being. We must consider how to fill is seat, but we stumble when we rush to focus on politics and partisan dispute without due time or due respect.

The Institute for Civility in Government does not endorse anyone, does not support any particular position. But we believe in the value of deliberation and the celebration of a life, and in seeking to learn from each other rather than lambasting others for who they are or what they believe. That is how we help each other be better. That is how we make the country better.

Justice Scalia’s passing, and Justice Ginsburg’s heartfelt words, should be a reminder. Not only do we all gain when we try to get along. We benefit most of all by having friends who do not think like us, who challenge us, and who enrich our own understanding of life.

— Thomas Spath and Cassandra Dahnke, Institute Co-Founders

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.

Playing “Controversial Opinion.”

Earlier this month, Sean Blanda, writing at Medium.com, had this thought-provoking essay that relates to a lot of our recent content here at The Civility Blog. Titled The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb, he comments on the impulse toward a team mentality when it comes to matters of opinion from politics to taste, and observes some of the ways that this leads to closed minds and an outright dismissal of anybody we perceive to be part of the opposing faction.

The problem, he says, stems from a psychological concept called false-consensus bias: the assumption we make that our values and beliefs are normal or widely held. It is fed by contemporary media outlets, which are increasingly segregated by ideological point of view. And it leads to the worst kind of echo chamber, one where those inside are increasingly convinced that everyone shares their world view, that their ranks are growing when they aren’t.

Blanda writes that the unfortunate results of this are a fundamental rejection of the possibility to consider that the people who don’t feel the same way you do might be right, and an assumption that opinions work like menu cards, where people who like the same TV shows, or movies, or music you do must also share the same views on social welfare, or banking reform, or immigration. It is a preference to see the Other Side as a cardboard cut out, he says, rather than as complicated individual human beings. And it is ultimately about belittling people rather than trying to understand them.

The problem that Blanda is describing is related to several we’ve talked about here before. False-consensus bias, like confirmation bias, is exacerbated by filter bubbling – the situation where media outlets, and especially websites, serve us content that is tailored to our established viewing preferences. And it is parallel to some of the research we wrote about in December: the idea that party affiliation in the United States is increasingly a matter of tribalism rather than mere electoral politics.

It is difficult, on the one hand, to fight the notion that our own points of view are what’s normal when – because of the sum of our previous search queries – companies like Google and Facebook adapt some or all of what we see to what they think we want. And on the other hand, it is difficult not to conceive of political identity as team identity when the filters account for aesthetic and political choices in exactly the same way. If our personalized list of Facebook trending topics, for example, consistently places filtered political news next to science, business, and culture, it only makes sense that our brains begin to fit them all together.

In any case, in his essay, Sean Blanda offers some useful suggestions for how to overcome this kind of thinking. He tells us that it is imperative that we have conversations with people with whom we disagree, and that in those conversations, we must not try to “win”:

Don’t try to “convince” anyone of your viewpoint. Don’t score points by mocking them to your peers. Instead try to “lose.” Hear them out. Ask them to convince you and mean it.

He suggests that we reconsider how we use social media. The next time you feel compelled to share a link, he suggests, ask yourself why you are doing it:

Is it because that link brings to light information you hadn’t considered? Or does it confirm your world view, reminding your circle of intellectual teammates that you’re not on the Other Side?

And he offers a compelling idea for a game that is, fundamentally, about instilling civility. He calls it Controversial Opinion, but it might as easily be called the same thing as his essay: The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb. The rules are simple, Blanda writes: don’t talk about what was shared during Controversial Opinion afterward and you aren’t allowed to “argue” — only to ask questions about why that person feels that way.

Each player in turn reveals opinions that they hold, but that they assume are unpopular, about any topic at all. And in the other players’ surprise, the illusion of homogeneity – of having a team or a tribe – is systematically destroyed. Like the intimate discussions that we somehow never seem to quite be able to have, Controversial Opinion reveals our collective diversity and requires that we seek to understand each other as people — not essentialize, or belittle, or make fun.

It requires respect to play. It requires empathy to play well. And it has the potential to be a gateway from which we can exit the filter bubble and move from adversarial confrontation to the sort of meaningful, civil discussion that has the potential to get things done.

Civility Linkblogging: Portland, Oshkosh, Texas, and the Internet

Civility LinkbloggingThis post is part of 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 week’s articles can be seen, in a certain way, as Linkblogging’s New Years Resolution Edition: from Wisconsin, a discussion of the problem of gossip in small communities; from Indiana, a renewed commitment to civility on the legislative agenda; from Oregon, an examination of civility’s balance with free speech; and from Texas, a reminder to listen — really listen — to what candidates are telling us as the presidential primaries finally begin to roll around.

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:

Is Facebook Destroying Civility and Truth?
Posted at Raw Story, January 2, 2016

Could it be, as Applebaum and Manjoo suggest, that this latest phase of democratizing our communication channels has turned out to be a politically regressive force, increasing the levels of demagoguery and deceit and civic conflict?

History is undeniably on the side of Zuckerberg. Think of all the step changes in human connection over the eons — from scrolls to the printing press to the pamphleteers to the newspapers. Yes, each transition had its own particular form of tumult, and each undermined its fair share of existing authorities, but with the hindsight of centuries, they are all now considered to be fundamentally on the side of progress: democratizing the flow of information and decision-making in society, and increasing the quality of those decisions. No one is hankering to rewind the clock to, say, the media of the 16th-century: post-Gutenberg, but pre-pamphleteers.

Gossip Not a Hallmark of Civility
Posted by Kaitlyn Lockery at The Northwestern, January 2, 2016

The Oshkosh community, although growing, still has a small town feel. While having that small town feel brings many advantages, it can sometimes feel like everyone knows everyone’s business. This can lead to gossip circulating among the community between friends, coworkers and even family members. Gossip can be damaging to the individual and others who are involved when the story that is being repeated may not be fully true. Why waste your time and energy gossiping about someone or something when that energy could be better spent on something more positive? This could include finding the truth, looking at the story from the other’s point of view, or simply not allowing gossip in your daily discussions with your peers.

One goal that I encourage everyone to try to accomplish this month is, before you repeat any story ask yourself two questions: Is this the truth? Is this story damaging to the person involved? If either of these questions are answered to indicate it is gossip, ignore it.

Indiana House Leaders Commit to Civility
Posted by Dan Carden at The Northwest Indiana Times, January 9, 2016

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Democratic Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, both declared last week that debate over controversial issues likely to come before the House through March 14 will not devolve into name-calling or personal attacks.

“We will do everything in our power to be certain that no matter how difficult the discussions might get on any issue, that we’re respectful of each other, that we talk about ideas and not personalities and that we work together to do what we believe is best for the state of Indiana,” Bosma said.

He emphasized that civility is so important to the 71 House Republicans that Bosma decided to include preserving civility on the caucus legislative agenda, alongside infrastructure funding, student testing reform and cracking down on drug dealers.

‘Civility’ No Reason to Trample Portlanders’ First Amendment Rights
Posted at Oregon Live, January 12, 2016

It’s easy to agree with Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman that civility seems to have taken a nose dive. That presidential candidates openly deride competitors as “losers” is only a little less astounding than the erosion of “Portland Polite” in recent months, where protesters’ heckling has disrupted City Council meetings and caused commissioners to adjourn.

But even with that backdrop, there’s no justification for a resolution that Saltzman plans to introduce on Wednesday with the support of Mayor Charlie Hales. Saltzman is seeking Council approval to appeal a federal judge’s ruling that the city may not bar people from attending future council meetings based on previous disruptive behavior, as The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Maxine Bernstein reported. Such “prospective exclusion” orders infringe on a person’s First Amendment protections, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon said in his Dec. 31 opinion, siding with a local activist who had been barred for 60 days from City Hall for previous conduct.

As Primaries Draw Near, Let’s Not Forget Civility
Posted by Ferrell Foster at Ethics Daily, January 11, 2015

No party speaks for God. There will be committed Christians, as well as others, running in both parties. Some of them will actually use language that connects deeply with those of us who seek to follow Christ.

Language is a powerful tool for good or evil, right or wrong. As a result, we Christians need to listen with all the intelligence and wisdom we can muster through the help of the Holy Spirit.

Civility, Empathy, and Tears

Civility, Empathy, and TearsIt’s an easy thing to get caught up in the idea that civility is basically cerebral. But as the past week has shown, its emotional reality is vitally important, too.

About a week ago, on January 5th, in a speech in which he announced some executive orders regarding gun control, President Obama shed very public tears as he spoke about the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Our unalienable right to life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, he said, with a crescendo of emotion, was stripped from first-graders in Newtown. First-graders. And from every family who never imagined that their loved one would be taken from our lives by a bullet from a gun. And then, wiping tears from his eyes, he told us: every time I think about those kids it gets me mad.

The President’s tears remind us that though it is not common, displays of raw emotion among American officials have become a part of the landscape of our political culture. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner, famous for his tears, once told a reporter that there are just some things that tug at me. He said that he can’t go to schools while campaigning. All of those little sweet kids, I’m a mess. And in 2012, as he discussed the resignation of Representative Gabrielle Giffords – who had herself been the victim of a mass shooting – he appeared to fight back tears on ABC’s Sunday show, This Week:

“I’ve never quite seen a farewell in the House like this,” he said. “A bipartisan effort, all the members were there. A sad day for the House.”

“But, a very brave lady,” Boehner added, choking up.

Progressives, over the years, have made fun of John Boehner’s publicly emotional style, producing lists of instances of tearful moments, or turning his quivering lip into online memes. And similarly, some conservative pundits this week called into question Obama’s sincerity, wondering – among other things – if he had a raw onion hidden behind his podium. Actor James Woods, on Twitter, suggested that the President’s were #CrocadileTears.

But the fact is that tears are powerful, and it behooves us to take them seriously. As Leonard Pitts Jr. of The Miami Herald says of President Obama’s speech: one grows used to thinking of politics as a craft practiced mostly by people who are only technically human – who are automatons programmed to court votes by any means, including cynical ones. But that’s not the reality. This moment destroyed that perception, he writes. The president wept and it was a starkly human thing.

Institute President and co-founder Cassandra Dahnke has made a similar observation. Tears show us that our public figures are more than politicians or lawmakers or position holders, she responded when asked about the significance of the President’s emotional moment. They are people – and while they are in unique positions, they aren’t any different from the rest of the us.

And that sameness is significant. That sameness highlights one of the core emotional realities necessary to have civility at all: empathy. Tears and other expressions of emotion are outward signs of internal connection. They are part of an economy of emotions that we all – at our best – share between us: the idea that my happiness depends on yours, and that when you suffer, I cannot help but suffer, too.

We often think of this sort of empathy as a feature of art and drama, but it is also the basis of our ability to engage in inclusive politics. Empathy allows us to respect others and make room for their feelings and needs – to make our footprint smaller so they can have space, too. When President sheds tears for the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting, he acknowledges that in some measure the pain of those deaths – the families’ grief and loss – is his pain, grief, and loss. And that connection opens the possibility of acknowledging and balancing conflicting needs.

In the speech, President Obama plainly states: I believe in the Second Amendment. He supports the right to bear arms. But empathy informs an acknowledgment that even where rights are concerned, there is no such thing as absolute good. He tells us this with words when he says that we all believe in the First Amendment … but we accept that you can’t yell “fire” in a theater. And he tells us again with his actions – when he cries.

Does this mean that his tears are a calculated political ploy, as folks like James Woods have suggested? No. But as John Boehner can surely attest, emotional displays need not be calculated to be rhetorically and politically significant.

In both cases – the President’s and the former Speaker of the House’s – tears get to the very personal layer that underlies our politics, the reason we have a political process at all. The fact that I have needs and beliefs that require acknowledgment and respect is basically emotional. And via empathy, my ability to accommodate the needs and beliefs of others is basically emotional, too.

So what we see when our elected officials shed tears amounts to a peek behind the curtain. In tears, their most human selves break through. And in these moments of humanity is the potential for a more civil politics: one that understands that our well-being is interconnected, and that negotiates public policy accordingly.