Civility Blog

Political Correctness is a Red Herring; Civility is the Issue

Among presidential primary candidates and pundits, political correctness has once again become a watch word in the last few weeks of 2015. The trend is not exactly new. This past September Donald Trump, responding to criticism of his brusque rhetorical style and specifically of his confrontation with FOX News host Megyn Kelly, proclaimed that he is so tired of this politically correct crap. And even before that, at the beginning of August, he told a debate audience that I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness.

But discourse about political correctness, and the ritual denunciation of it, has gained momentum especially since the December 15th Republican primary debate. There, several of the candidates claimed that their strength on issues of national security as President would come from a rejection of the notion. Senator Ted Cruz said that in terms of border security, his policies would not be prisoners to political correctness. And he said that the San Bernadino shootings could have been stopped but for the Department of Homeland Security deferring to political correctness on the issue of monitoring electronic communications.

Dr. Ben Carson told audiences that United States of America is the patient. And the patient is in critical condition and will not be cured by political correctness. He said that in looking out at the advantages and disadvantages of cultures and policies from around the world, he is not anxious to give away American values and principles for the sake of political correctness.

There is a sense in which this much discussion of political correctness in such a high-profile venue seems surprising. As Philip Bump writes in The Washington Post, the term as it is currently used is something of a relic of the 1980s and 1990s. It calls to mind Rolling Stone magazine, in 1992, calling out R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe for suffering from “‘man for all causes’ syndrome,” given that he wore “all those politically correct T-shirts on the MTV Video Music Awards show.” Or as Robert Kuttner writes at The Huffington Post, it hearkens back to Allan Bloom’s 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind, in which he attacked liberal college professors for imposing “politically correct” ways of thinking on impressionable undergraduates.

But as Bump says, antipathy toward political correctness has never gone away. It has bubbled under the surface, fueled by demographic and economic shifts that have fomented uncertainty and resentment between cultural groups. Or as Paul Waldman puts it in a recent article in The American Prospect, it has come in the past two decades to be used increasingly by right-leaning media figures to mean speaking tactfully, as opposed to speaking truthfully, about the exigencies of American political life.

So large does the concept loom in the American imagination, in fact, that in a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released in October, 68 percent of respondents agreed that political correctness was a big problem. That includes 62 percent of self-identified Democrats, 68 percent of independents and 81 percent of Republicans, as well as majorities of white, black, and Hispanic respondents.

The thing about it is that the respondents are right. Political correctness is a problem.  And it’s a problem especially where it interacts with questions of civility.

In The Des Moines Register, Kathie Obradovich asks the question: can civility exist in a world where voters put a premium on straight talk and abhor “political correctness?” She writes that the rejection of political correctness taps into Americans’ disgust with politicians who just tell everyone what they want to hear. But that at the same time, she says, the result of jettisoning it can be downright abusive: characterizing Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists (Trump), comparing Obamacare to slavery (Carson), calling people pathological (Trump about Carson).

But the fact is that political correctness and civility are two separate issues. And though the political correctness may preserve civility of speech, by throttling it down we might ultimately strengthen civility as a whole.

Consider it this way: if we wanted to define it, we could say that being politically correct is agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people. We could say that it is basically a rhetorical strategy of self-censorship, in which people don’t express their true beliefs regarding identity politics because of pressure to conform themselves to some particular (usually progressive-coded) political point of view.

By this definition, political correctness is not a way of maintaining civility, but of masking the very real incivility that looms behind too many social interactions. As a regime, it does not ask people to confront the racism, sexism, homophobia, et cetera present in their views. Instead, it asks them to subsume those things. To use an example from Paul Waldman, if you’re a man of a certain age, you might think it was perfectly fine to call your secretary “sweetheart” and give her a pat on the behind whenever the mood struck you. You might not act on it because it would be politically incorrect to do so. But the fact that you know it to be politically incorrect doesn’t change your opinion, only the outcome.

The logic behind political correctness of this sort is that by changing our actions, we ultimately change our minds. But that’s clearly not the case. It has been more than thirty years since political correctness came into popular usage in this form. And the fact that Trump supporters perceive his often disparaging rhetoric as telling it like it is suggests that for many of us, there is something in those old ways of thinking that still rings true, even if we feel that we aren’t allowed to say it.

In this formulation, civility is almost the opposite of political correctness, even if it ultimately leads us to a similar place. If we define civility, as the Institute does, as claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process, then it is incumbent upon us not to subsume our views, but to own them. And at the same time, it is imperative for us to recognize that other people – people who may be the objects of our internalized biases – have their own identity, needs, and beliefs, and that we need to make space for them to be heard and honored too.

The operative question about civility, then, is not ‘how do we act as though we were more tolerant than we are?’ It is ‘how do we make the mental and institutional space for pluralism?’

Key to this difference is two concepts: self-reflection and negotiation. In order to go from political correctness to civility, we must reflect on whether our beliefs are based in learned prejudices, or whether they are based in the real facts of the real world. And we must reflect on whether our beliefs require that we stifle the views of our neighbors, or whether they allow us to constructively take differences of opinion into account.

And going from political correctness requires that we change the way we act. It requires that we learn not just to speak the language of inclusivity, but to be inclusive. In areas where we find we are in a position of privilege, this means considering how we can reduce the footprint of our needs such that others can have their needs met, too. And in areas where we find that we are the objects of others’ biases, it requires insisting that our needs be met while recognizing that prior mistreatment is often the result of ignorance, not malice.

A future beyond political correctness may not look obviously like civility insofar as our interactions may seem ruder, or rawer, or less polite. Certainly, we are likely to be more confrontational. But both the presidential primary candidates and public opinion are right about political correctness in at least this one sense: as long as we hide our beliefs and biases behind a veil or euphemism and silence, the underlying problems that make regimes of political correctness necessary are unlikely to ever be addressed.

Civility Linkblogging: Santa, Canada, and the Supermarket

Civility Linkblogging
A Lynx, because Linkblogging

This 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 seem eclectic, but most focus on an important idea: the transformative potential of domestic spaces and individual behavior. Gina DeLapa’s contribution is exemplary in this respect. Here, she recounts an interaction she had at a grocery store — quiet, and seemingly devoid of larger impact. But her advice is resonant: speak up, she tells us, when you see something that seems wrong, or out of place, or offensive. It may be momentarily uncomfortable, but one awkward conversation can have a real positive effect.

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:

Angels, Men and Government: Bringing Civility Back to the Political Discourse
Posted by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz at The Huffington Post, November 23, 2015

Politicians are not immune from emotional shaming. As the pressure builds, the constant rebuke from all sides may harden them in ways that make them less compassionate and more ideologically narrow. This is the opposite of what, in my view, we need in our leaders. As equally important are the people that elect those into office: we are not immune to the impact upon ourselves and our culture when we engage in diatribes and screeds in lieu of reasoned debate. Each of us in the political ecosystem is profoundly and importantly imperfect. As James Madison wrote all those years ago, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary” (Federalist No. 51). We are flawed; the system is flawed. But that doesn’t mean we should expect perfection of intellect and temperament from our politicians. We are a rapidly changing society, for better or worse, and we hold the power to shape the future of this nation. The quest to make this a “more perfect union” is never-ending. For the sake of our children and grandchildren, let’s cease our petulant attitude towards those running for the highest office in the land and begin pursuing a rational course of action that will have consequence for decades to come.

Lesson in Civility
Posted by Gina DeLapa at Ultimate Reminders, November 30, 2015

Was it easy to speak up? No. But for thirty seconds of discomfort, we did our part to clean up the culture. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, it’s become considerably harsher.

We don’t have to go looking for proof of this. The proof will find us. When it does, whether at home, work, a meeting, or anywhere else, I challenge you to listen to your better instincts, and when the time is right, say something. If I can do it, you can do it.

Santa and Civility
Posted by Dana Carroll at The Springfield News-Leader, December 11, 2015

Forni says, “Self-expression belongs to the natural order of things. We owe it to ourselves to express ourselves, and there is something good and healthful in bringing forward and acting upon our thoughts and feelings. However, this doesn’t mean all we want to express is equally worthy of expression. The unruly, brazen and reckless give self-expression a bad name. Going through life under the sway of unchecked impulses may be self-expression, but irresponsible self-indulgence.”

We have become affected by the skepticism of our time. We tend not to believe what we do not see. Back to the Santa debate — when a child begins to question what is real, try to encourage them to think of others, those that are younger, or from different backgrounds. Perhaps there isn’t one right answer. Just because I don’t believe flying reindeer deliver the jolly old man in the red coat, perhaps I should embrace the spirit that the old man represents — one of joy, giving, kindness, and just a dash of tolerance. And again the question, “Do you have to be wrong, in order for me to be right?”

A Very Canadian Civility
Posted by Adam de Pencier at The National Post, December 17, 2015

The recent federal election saw a renewed interest in civility, which is sometimes thought of as purely good manners but goes much deeper. On election night, Justin Trudeau referred to Laurier’s 1895 “Sunny Ways” speech, which itself can be traced back to the 6th-century B.C. fabulist Aesop. The story goes that the disputatious Sun and Wind were having it out as to who was more powerful. A passerby wrapped in a cloak was to be the test. The howling wind tries to blow off the garment, only to have the man cling all the more to it; by contrast, the gentle sun shines his warm, dulcet rays which (of course) have the effect of making the fellow disrobe.

While the PM-elect cleverly recalled this story, especially within the context of Canadian history and his party’s greatest leader, “Sunny Ways” have been with us in Canada since 2010, when Johnston was appointed. His cheerful disposition — look no further than the swearing in of the Liberal cabinet where no one was enjoying themselves more than the Governor General — and sterling reputation for working in any co-operative venture have made him a winsome choice by former prime minister Stephen Harper.

A Plea for Civility
Posted by Craig Vanslyke at The Flagstaff Business News, December 18, 2015

To me, it seems that three factors contribute to incivility. The first is a lack of humility. At its core, civility requires humility; it requires an acknowledgment that we’re not at the center of the universe. This humility gives us the realization that we need to behave in ways that recognize others and their feelings. This leads us to our second factor. Civility, especially civil discourse, requires us to not only acknowledge that others are important, it also requires acknowledging that we may be wrong. One of the things that makes a controversial topic controversial is that the answer or solution isn’t obvious. The correct path is unclear. Pick any of the many difficult challenges facing our society. Regardless of the issue, I don’t know the answer, and neither do you. You may think you know, but you don’t. You may believe in an approach, but you don’t really know if it will work. Sure, we can and should apply evidence and reason, but at the end of the day, there are too many unknowns to really know the answers. (By the way, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t advocate for certain positions or solutions. It just means that we should listen to contrary views, as I noted in an earlier column.) Finally, incivility comes from cluelessness. Sometimes we’re simply unaware of how we appear to others. We just don’t think about how we come off to other people. Most of the people I’ve unfollowed are nice people. They aren’t trying to be uncivil, they just seem a bit clueless about how they may be perceived.

Implicit Bias, Political Identity

Earlier this month, Ezra Klein of Vox.com wrote a disturbing article about the changing nature of Americans’ identification with political parties. In it, he looks at the results of a recent study by political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood, whose research suggests that party affiliation isn’t simply an expression of our disagreements on ideology or issues. Rather, it’s a matter of tribalism: the transformation of party affiliation into a form of personal identity that reaches into almost every aspect of our lives.

In their study, titled “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines,” Iyengar and Westwood write about [PDF] an increasing intrusion of partisan behaviors into aspects of everyday life that are not ordinarily coded as political. They cite “likes” and “follows” for social media accounts associated with Republican and Democratic political figures, as well as for partisan television news-analysis hosts from networks like FOX News and MSNBC. They cite studies that suggest that residential neighborhoods are becoming increasingly politically homogeneous, and that parents are increasingly likely to express displeasure over the prospects of their offspring marrying into a family with a different party affiliation.

Implicit Bias, Political Identity

In an interview that Klein conducted for his article at Vox, Iyengar says that it’s almost certainly not a matter of increasing ideological extremism among voters from one party or another. If you look at Americans’ positions on the issues, Iyengar says, they are much closer to the center than their elected representatives. And yet, Klein writes, since the 1980s, Republicans’ feelings towards the Democratic Party, and Democrats’ feelings towards the Republican Party, have dropped off a cliff.

In order to find out how this works, Iyengar and Westwood conducted two experiments. In one, they used mock scholarship applications to measure participants’ political and racial biases. They impaneled 1,021 people and asked them to choose between fictional high-school age applicants displaying four characteristics: Democrat, Republican, African American, and Euro American.

The result was that, more than any other factor, it was party cue that exerted the strongest impact on selection for the largest number of participants. Regardless of qualifications like GPA, and regardless of the factor of race, Democratic leaners showed a stronger preference for the Democratic candidate and Republican leaners showed the same – though somewhat less strongly – for the Republican candidate. Despite the fact that it was a non-partisan task, in other words, partisanship prevailed.

In the second experiment, they conducted what’s called an implicit association test with 2,000 participants. An implicit association test, Klein writes, measures the snap judgments your brain makes at speeds faster than conscious thought. Originally developed to measure racial bias, it requires the test taker to hit a letter on your keyboard when certain word and images flash together. And based on the speed of the response, it exposes the kinds of instant judgment we make before we have time to think.

Implicit Bias, Political Identity
Figure 2 of Iyengar and Westwood, “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization.”

The results of the implicit association test are much the same as in the scholarships experiment: people who identify as Republicans and people who identify as conservative both 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. The results suggest that it isn’t with the rational part of the mind – the part that responds to ideas and ideologies – that people make judgments. We make the judgments based on partisan biases, and then rationalize after the fact.

For Ezra Klein, the conclusion to be drawn from this is bleak: winning an argument, at least when you’re talking to co-partisans, is less about persuasion than about delegitimization. And for political candidates, it may not be worth campaigning across party lines at all. Like other forms of fandom – sports teams, for example – party and ideology have become powerful forms of personal identity. And this changes the playbook for the worse for cynical presidential candidates, policymakers, pundits, and anybody else looking to gain followers on the cheap.

But Klein’s conclusion isn’t the only way to read this data. One of the things that his article at Vox does is publish a version of the implicit association test that readers can take online. And this, when combined with the existing results, suggest a kind of opportunity.

Yes, according to Iyengar and Westwood’s study, American voters on the whole are plagued by what looks like the partisan version of racism: we’ve grown pretty strong biases against people and institutions we identify as being members of the out-group, and in favor of people and institutions we identify as being in our camp. But we also have the tools to reverse this trend. The fact is that the mechanism by which we make political decisions does not stop at our inborn biases. We have the capacity for rational decision-making, too. And now, understanding that bias is a fact, we can be alerted, rather than resigned, to its effect. And we can be vigilant about monitoring our decision-making processes more closely.

In other words: Iyengar and Westwood’s results can be seen not just as a sign of the times, but also as a call to action. And that’s what we here at the Institute would recommend. We would recommend that you, our readers, click through to take the implicit association test, and learn just how partisan you really are. And then use that data as a starting point to listen – really listen – to what candidates for political office are saying. It will certainly turn out that you disagree with many of the positions that candidates in the upcoming elections hold. But you may be surprised to learn that – adjusting for implicit bias – your disagreement across party lines is less uniform than you probably thought.

Ezra Klein isn’t wrong when he tells us that this sort of party identification is the stuff from which candidates generate loyalty. But it doesn’t have to be. What Iyengar and Westwood’s study does is expose the technique behind the trick. It gives us the means to opt out of partisan fandom.  We can opt out.  And by doing so, we can make better choices that, in the long run, may allow us to field better candidates, too.

Donald Trump, His Detractors, and the Rhetoric of Provocation

As we have previously stated, the Institute endorses no candidates and no policy positions. However, occasionally a political figure will say or do something that pertains to civility and deserves comment. Donald Trump’s recent proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States falls into this category, insofar as it is contrary to the spirit of open dialog and free expression that is necessary for the health of a vibrant pluralist society.

In a press release Monday, his campaign wrote that: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States. To the Associated Press, Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski clarified that this means not only immigration, but tourists seeking to enter the country. And Trump himself strongly implied that the ban would include Muslims who are U.S. citizens and travel outside of the country.

Beyond the fact that this plan would violate constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, Trump’s words have the effect of polarizing and provoking. They close, rather than open, avenues of civil dialog. And they have the potential to incite violence against a group that is already frequently the target of hate crimes in the United States. Just hours before Trump’s statement, for example, police and the FBI confirmed that they were investigating an incident in which a severed pig’s head was left outside of a mosque in North Philadelphia.

Several members of Trump’s political party have denounced his proposal. Jeb Bush offered a strong rebuke through Twitter. And, as CNN reports, state chairs of the Republican Party in New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina were critical as well. Matt Moore, the Republican chair in South Carolina, tweeted that we must remain vigilant about defending our inalienable rights, not attacking them when it’s politically convenient. And Jennifer Horn, head of the New Hampshire GOP, called the proposal “un-American” and “un-Republican.”

That said, there is a second strain of criticism being leveled against Donald Trump that is as unacceptable as the proposal itself. That is, what philosopher Leo Strauss in 1951 dubbed reductio ad Hitlerum. Reductio ad Hitlerum is a type of ad hominem logical fallacy that proposes that a person’s views, and therefore the person him- or herself, is like Hitler, a Nazi, a fascist, or the Nazi Party.

This was clear Monday when The Times of Israel ran an image with their story on Trump’s proposal of the candidate seemingly engaged in the Nazi salute. And it was clear this morning in the Philadelphia Daily News’s punning headline: “The New Furor.”

Donald Trump, His Detractors, and the Rhetoric of Provocation
Times of Israel, December 7, 2015

 

Donald Trump, His Detractors, and the Rhetoric of Provocation
Philadelphia Daily News, December 8, 2015

But the Nazi – or more generally fascist – comparison is not limited to images and three-word tags. Journalist Xeni Jardin, writing at BoingBoing.net, called Donald Trump a candidate for Führer of the United Fascist States of America. And an article at Quartz.com by Uzra Khan of the Harvard Kennedy School of Public Policy called this proposal, and earlier comments about tracking Muslim Americans, a set of ideas reeking of Nazism.

Finally, on social media, this meme has been circulating for the past twenty-four hours:

Donald Trump, His Detractors, and the Rhetoric of Provocation
The Institute obviously DOES NOT endorse any comparison of anybody, least of all Donald Trump, to Hitler.

The trouble with the reductio ad Hitlerum argument is almost precisely the same as the problem with Donald Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslim immigration: it is alarmist, overwrought, and privileges polarization and provocation over the sort of meaningful dialog that has a chance to disarm bigotry and lead to productive changes in policy and attitude alike. How can one respond to a comparison to Nazi Germany? With blanket denial, defensiveness, or an equally sweeping counter-attack. And none of those responses are useful.

The fact of the matter is that our attitudes toward and policies regarding immigration do require serious public scrutiny. Violence perpetrated by extremists of all creeds is currently an exigent problem in the United States. And America’s undercurrent of festering anti-Islamic sentiment does require open dialog if it’s ever to find resolution.

But when candidates for high office propose extreme measures, and when those proposals are met with disproportionate and ad hominem attacks, we cannot collectively do any of those things. To foster dialog, to resolve hate, and to countenance scrutiny, America needs the kind of safe space created through civility. And it is civility that these kinds of rhetorical tactics threaten, if not destroy.

Civility Linkblogging: The Classroom, The Senate, and India

Civility Linkblogging
A Lynx, because Linkblogging

This 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 items are eclectic, but threaded through them is an important theme: the value of listening, and the importance of thoughtfulness, in making decisions for groups of people with heterogenious points of view. Stacie Schultz at Edification in Progress reminds us — rightly — that people from the other end of the ideological spectrum aren’t out to ruin the world. Ann McFeatters tells us that we are colleagues, not enemies. Namita Bhandare of The Hindustan Times tells us that without tolerance we can’t have civility, and absent civility, we have nothing left but acrimony and blame.

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:

Voters Must Demand Civility, Thoughtfulness from Candidates.
Posted by Ann McFeatters at The Naples News, November 5, 2015

Clinton shouldn’t say, even jokingly, that Republicans are her “enemy.” Carson shouldn’t compare Obamacare to Nazism. Voters must not give credence to Donald Trump’s insistence he should be president because he’s the loudest, rudest and richest. Marco Rubio can’t assume his youth, heritage and dismissive attitude toward his onetime mentor mean he deserves the presidency.

Voters must demand civility and thoughtfulness. They must insist on serious policy proposals and in-depth knowledge about our problems. An Iowa man recently said, “I’m for Ben Carson because he doesn’t yell.” Really, that is not the gold standard for choosing the most powerful leader in the world.

The Road to Tolerance Begins with Civility.
Posted by Namita Bhandare at The Hindustan Times, November 6, 2015

It falls upon the party in power to restore some normalcy. Playing the victim, blaming the media and seeing plots against it won’t cut it.

The journey to tolerance begins with an ability to listen to another point of view. And sometimes it takes a trip to the hills, away from raucous, argumentative Delhi, to realise that what is at stake is something very fundamental to society: Civility. If only we’d stop shouting and start listening.

A Renewed Call for Senate Civility.
Posted by Ed Feulner at The Washington Times, November 9, 2015

Hearing that it was his first speech might lead you to assume that Mr. Sasse was simply grandstanding — playing the part of a brash newcomer with big ambitions. Wrong. Mr. Sasse was in office for more than a year before he made his speech. Listening. Talking to other senators in private. Trying to diagnose the problem with some precision.

In doing do, Mr. Sasse was doing something that many lawmakers fail to do. He wasn’t just talking the talk, as they say. He was walking the walk. For it is his contention that much of the problem with the Senate today can be traced to a failure to listen. To consider all points of view. To carefully and thoughtfully weigh all options before speaking up.

Civility: Actions Without Humility Do Harm.
Posted by Orlaine I. Gabert at The Greenbay Press Gazette, November 10, 2015

Treating another human being as being unworthy is, of itself, a violent act. Now that individual has violence in his heart and in some way must let it out. Some of the results in our country have been slavery rebellions, civil war, strikes, murder, and mass shootings.

Not having any reason or understanding of being humble gives one license to act without kindness, courtesy, or respect.

Controversy With Civility.
Posted by Stacie Schultz at Edification in Progress, November 15, 2015

Take a moment and consider your political leanings that inform how you believe the world could be a better place. Do you have them fully-pictured in your head? Perfect. Now, think about people who disagree with your notions. Perhaps they espouse a different party’s views, or oppose one of your staunchly held positions. You’re probably feeling annoyed even at the mere thought of their ideas. But, take another moment and consider this: do you believe that they are out to ruin the world? That making the world worse is their inherent goal?

When I do this exercise with college students, to teach about the meaning of “controversy with civility”, nearly all of them take pause at the final questions. They chuckle, shake their heads, and murmur, “no, probably not.” We then discuss how remembering that most of society is working to better the world, just with different approaches, can help us tolerate and work with those we disagree with.

Five Civility Considerations for a Better Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is Thursday, and even at the best of times, it can be a seething crucible of potential political strife. Every year, newspapers around the country opine about ways to avoid political conflict with distant (and sometimes near) relations, and to keep the holiday cool, and calm, and genial for all involved.

Two years ago in The Houston Chronicle, for example, blogger Marty Troyer offered some ways to eat the turkey and not each other. He encouraged us to be gracious with people’s blind spots, be civil, apologize and forgive. He even mentioned the Institute’s definition of civility, which he tells us is not the same as letting anyone run all over you. We couldn’t agree more.

Five Strategies for Thanksgiving Civility

Especially this year – in the midst of a presidential election cycle and a whole host of dicey (but exigent) policy issues – it seems important to spend some time considering the civility challenges Thanksgiving poses. So before you’re faced with a houseful of guests whom you love – and with whom you vigorously disagree – here are five civility strategies you might consider for having those political conversations, but not letting them divide you.

Get acquainted with the 70/30 rule.

The 70/30 rule actually comes from union organizing and sales. Its premise is that people like to talk about themselves, and their own words tend to be the ones they find most compelling. Therefore, the rule goes, in persuasive conversations you should be doing about thirty percent of the talking, and your partner should be doing about seventy percent.

Now a conversation at the Thanksgiving table is probably not going to be of the persuading sort. You’re not agitating. And we hope you’re not trying to get your distant cousin twice removed to buy something. But the general principle, and the ratio, still apply.

By hanging back in the conversation, by letting your partner talk and by actively listening, you’re accomplishing an important task: you’re making them feel valued. You’re putting your conversation partner at his or her ease; you’re demonstrating that conversation – not just pontification – is important to you; and you’re creating a situation where, when it is your turn to talk, your partner will likely be better prepared to listen.

You may think that your relative or family friend is dead wrong. That’s okay. Recall that civility is about both claiming and caring for your beliefs, and letting other people do the same. When everybody at the table – not just the ones whose ideologies align – are comfortable talking, you’re setting yourself up not just for a more civil conversation, but for a more fruitful one, too.

Consider the context for relatives’ beliefs.

It’s hard to unlearn prejudice. That’s the goal. It should be everybody’s goal. But people are often at very different stages in that process, and when people hold prejudiced views, the issue is often not a moral failing, but a matter of the context in which they currently live, or have lived previously.

For example, if someone at your Thanksgiving table should express the view that unemployment is a function of laziness – that’s a prejudice. It paints a significant part of the population – the unemployed – with a broad brush. It makes the dual assumption that the unemployed are a homogeneous group, and that their existence is easily explained and can be reduced to one root cause.

But the fact of the matter is that prejudices come from somewhere: from a lived experience or from the absence of one. It is possible, for example, that your Thanksgiving guest might hold a view like this because they don’t know a lot of people who are unemployed – because unlike you, they haven’t seen their friends struggle for months to find work. Or it’s possible that they might hold this view because they have known people who are unemployed, and based on the too-small sample size that their experience yields them, have generalized about the population at large.

In either case, this isn’t the end of a conversation, but the beginning of one. If the goal of your holiday conversations is not to reduce interactions to pleasantries but to have them be broad-reaching and edifying to everybody, (gently) probing the sources of your partners’ prejudices might be a good strategy. You might help them learn a little bit of nuance. And – given that prejudice cuts in all directions – they might help you learn some nuance, too.

Decide ahead which issues you can let slide (and which you can’t).

This idea is simple. You may have strong convictions about a lot of things, but you’re neither the morality nor the ideology police. When your great uncle at the other end of the table says that gay marriage is a communist plot, or when your second cousin says that we should ban all guns – no exceptions! – it’s not necessarily your business. Yes, either or both may be wrong in your eyes. But are your relatives so wrong, or so in danger of getting their way as a matter of policy, that you need to end all the conversations going on, civil or not, in order to confront them?

The answer is maybe, but probably not.

Clearly, going into every ideologically heterogeneous situation, there are going to be vigorous disagreements. But one thing you might consider, preferably ahead of time, is which of those disagreements are worth your time and effort to confront at a basically non-political gathering, and which to let slide.

You might, for example, decide to reserve a civil conversation on matters political for one or two sore points that hit particularly close to home, and as to the rest: how about that football? Or you might, after careful consideration, decide that your Thanksgiving shouldn’t be quite so non-political after all.

Either way, it’s best to decide ahead of time. The better you plan, the less likely you are to stew when confronted with something unexpected.

The personal is political, but maybe not at Thanksgiving.

There is an adage, undoubtedly true, that the personal is political. If you look at the Institute’s definition of civility, you’ll see that right up there at the top is the need to claim one’s identity, and respect other people who want to do the same. But identity politics is like canned cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving: sticky, and probably better to avoid.

This can mean two things. The first part is that when your parents’ family friend who you haven’t seen in a decade makes an insensitive remark about liberals, or Tea-Party types, or gays, or bankers – assume that they don’t mean you. Like we said above, people are full of prejudices. And if we look at those prejudices’ context rather than taking them personally, we’re more likely to have a better conversation.

The second part of this – and this is important – is to avoid ad hominem responses. No, your niece isn’t pro-life because she’s ignorant. And that guy from your brother’s office doesn’t want higher corporate taxes because he’s drunk the Sanders Kool-Aid. Just like your identity, needs, and beliefs are nuanced, so too are theirs. And making assumptions about your table-mates – and especially voicing those assumptions – is a formula for divisiveness first and foremost.

Deescalate!

We mean deescalate in the technical sense. Given how fraught Thanksgiving can be, you may want to make sure that your tone, your body language, and your vocabulary all say that you’re looking to talk, not yell, and certainly not fight. You might even want to have a look here at some of the deescalation techniques recommended by the National Association of Social Workers. Appearing calm and refraining from finger-wagging seem particularly relevant in a Thanksgiving context. And being judgmental is definitely a step in the wrong direction.

But in a broader sense, when we say deescalate we mean pretty much all of the other steps above. Thanksgiving – and the whole holiday season – is often a source of anxiety for people. It’s one of the few situations where we’re forced to spend significant time with people who are family (and therefore with whom we have inextricable ties), but with whom we are not necessarily close.

This means that for many people, it feels like an exercise in being judged. And for some people, it’s the one opportunity per year to change people’s minds.

Neither of these is necessarily a healthy approach to the holiday. But we can make it better. By following the steps above – by listening more than we talk, by trying to understand where people come from, by deciding which parts of our politics we can just let go, and by not taking things so personally – we put ourselves in a position to have conversations rather than arguments, and to stake out a little bit of space at the table where we can be who we are, and accept that our relatives don’t necessarily share our values and beliefs.

Acceptance, here, is key. Thanksgiving comes but once a year, and one day is in no way enough time to change our relatives’ hearts and minds. So setting that aside as best we can and instead exploring the humanity behind the political positions seems like a fruitful next best thing. By doing so, we may learn nuance. And we may even sow the seeds of change.

Our Thoughts are with Paris

The highest goal of civility is to prevent violence. The goal, by cultivating a willingness to listen across divisions of ideology and identity, is to create the channels of communication that allow us to live together in relative peace.

In Paris, yesterday, that civility and peace failed profoundly. More than one hundred twenty people died, and more than three hundred people were injured, in attacks that targeted six sites across the city including a concert venue and a soccer field.

Paris Peace
Viral, attributed to @jean_jullien

There is time for analysis of the rhetoric and the events that surround this terrible tragedy. But the present is for grief, and for we who are far away to extend a hand of sympathy and support to those affected by the violence.

Today we all stand with Paris.

Chris Christie’s Moment of Exemplary Civility

Almost two months ago, now, I wrote about a moment of exemplary civility in the presidential primary race. Bernie Sanders, self-proclaimed socialist and Senator from Vermont, running for the Democratic nomination for President, reached out across divisions in party, region, religion, and ideology to speak to the students at Liberty University, the evangelical Christian college founded by the late Jerry Falwell.

I said then that the Institute does not endorse Sanders (or any other candidate or political position), but that when these sorts of extraordinarily civil moments come along – especially in an election cycle that much of the media is characterizing as particularly rough – it’s important to point them out and give credit where credit is due.

Well, it happened again this past week.

This week, we saw New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a candidate for the Republican nomination for President, transcend party politics and its points-scoring ethos for a moment to speak with passion and humanity about a topic that itself transcends our traditional political bounds: addiction. As Rolling Stone reports, Christie talked about his mother, who took up smoking as a teenager and tried to quit multiple times before she was diagnosed with lung cancer at 71, and then about a close friend whose life was destroyed by a painkiller addiction.

He spoke out against the blame game – the notion that people who become addicted to a substance deserve what they get – and in favor of institutions that privilege recovery over punishment and help people reorder their lives:

It can happen to anyone. And so we need to start treating people in this country. Not jailing them. We need to give them the tools they need to recover because every life is precious. Every life is an individual gift from God. And we have to we stop judging and start giving them the tools they need to get better.

What’s interesting about this as a trans-partisan moment is that Governor Christie’s politics did not go away. I am pro-life, he told his listeners. There’s no arguing about that. But he continued by telling them that in his view, if you’re pro-life, that means you’ve got to be pro-life for the whole life. Not just for the nine months they’re in the womb.

What he told his base of conservative supporters, in other words, is that he is with them – he shares their values. But at the same time, those values don’t preclude the possibility of finding common ground with people who hold different beliefs. And in fact, even the most central of conservative policy positions can be a conduit through, rather than a hindrance to, finding agreement across ideological conviction.

As if to underscore this, Governor Christie’s words reflected those of Pope Francis, much beloved by American progressives, who in September told a joint session of Congress that the golden rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

Questions of partisanship aside, however, what makes Governor Christie’s words truly exemplary of civility are their humanity. Fox News called his comments deeply personal. Rolling Stone said he shared an intensely personal pair of anecdotes. But the fact that the topic of addiction is close to Chris Christie’s heart is beside the point.

What his speech does is acknowledge that we all share a common humanity, whether or not we are afflicted by addiction, and that that commonality requires we act with compassion. It’s easy to be pro-life for the nine months you’re in the womb, he told his audience. They haven’t done anything to disappoint us yet. But it’s just as important to care for the 16-year-old teenage girl on the floor of the country lockup, addicted to heroin. Because, as he says later, there but for the grace of God go I.

If we take as our starting point that civility is about claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process, then this acknowledgment that we are all, at our core, the same, is key. It’s key to the notion of empathy – the idea that the drive of other people to pursue their needs and beliefs matters as much, or nearly as much, as our own. And it’s key to building the kind of trust that allows substantive discussions of policy – or anything else, really – to move forward: it’s about offering validation of our partners’ fundamental right to come to the table, even if we disagree about every other point.

As I said about Bernie Sanders last month, the Institute does not endorse Chris Christie or his positions. But in speaking about a difficult and sensitive topic, he offers a model for the kind of behavior that might lead us out of campaign quibbling and toward substantial, inclusive discussion.  And that’s a thing that we definitely want to applaud.

The full video of Chris Christie’s remarks can be found here.

Civility Linkblogging: Refugees, Classrooms, and Parts of Speech

Civility Linkblogging
A Lynx, because Linkblogging

This 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.

The most striking item in this week’s collection is probably linguist John McWhorter’s discussion of the pronoun ‘ze’ at CNN.com. There, he discusses the word in the context of the history of gender-neutral language, and he talks about why pronouns are such a difficult class of words to change. But most significantly, he talks about the necessity of gender-neutral pronouns as a civility issue: calling people what they want to be called, he tells us, is both a matter of courtesy and an affirmation that their voice counts, too.

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:

‘Please, Have Some Tea.’ For Refugees, Civility Before Danger.
Posted by Jeanne Carstensen at PRI.org, October 2, 2015

Yet they both insist on inviting me to tea. This detail — of hospitality offered in a moment of extremis — sticks with me. I had gone to the Basmane neighborhood with some trepidation. After all, it’s the center of human trafficking, as it’s called, the business of moving people illegally across borders. Looking around me I wondered who was who, who was a trafficker, or a middleman, or a refugee. But when I sat down to interview Asas and Nour and others with my microphone held close to their faces I quickly felt at ease.

I offered to pay for the tea but they would not accept. And when beggars came by our table, the refugees reached into their pockets for coins. No one was turned down.

Civility Counts in the Classroom
Posted by Summer Moore at at NWI.com, October 11, 2015

Think about kids. They are inherently civil because they are so curious. Why is the sky blue? Why does Jimmy have two dads? Why does that person live on the street?

They are yearning for answers and will take them from the person they deem the best authority. Most of the time that person is a parent or guardian, a teacher or caregiver.

We feel that we can reach kids when they are deciding how to interact with people that aren’t the same as them. We can show them that where you’re from and what you look like doesn’t have to mean we can’t respect each other.

Goodbye to ‘He’ and ‘She’ and Hello to ‘Ze’?
Posted by John McWhorter at CNN, October 14, 2015

Language changes with the times, and when it comes to our conceptions of gender, the times are most certainly changing.

We are opening up to the idea that binary conceptions of gender are unnecessarily rigid and don’t correspond to the self-image of a great many people, and even that people’s sense of their gender may not correspond to their biological sex. In this new world, a bland opposition between “he” and “she” seems increasingly antique, and even insulting, to many. …

Now, I would hope that pronouns like “ze” would not be imposed with the knuckle-rapping and contemptuous indignation with which the Billy and I rule has been promulgated. However, there is room for presenting “ze” as a matter not of fashion, but of basic civility — people must think of new pronouns as the proper thing to do, not as a stunt.

Searching for Civility After a Campus’s Annus Horribilis
Posted by Mary Beth Mathews at The Christian Century, October 14, 2015

Directly related to speaking up inside the classroom is my second goal: to build empathy among my students, one class session at a time. That can take the form of free-flowing discussions about current events, but it can also be accomplished by asking students to list and expand on the motivating factors at work in American history and religion. Students will almost always condemn anti-Semitism, for example. But they are better able to see how hatred is constructed and used for oppression after they critically examine the confluence of events that led to Henry Ford’s interest in the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Once they understand the background of such hate speech, it becomes easier for them to identify with the victims of hatred, oppression, and ridicule. Then they can more easily recognize similar biases in society today.

We Found Civility on the ‘Lord of the Flies’ of MMO Servers
Posted by Leif Johnson at Motherboard, October 15, 2015

In fact, a month in, a good number of players seem to live by an ad-hoc code, which contrasts sharply with reports of mass slayings at the spawn-in points for new characters during the game’s launch last month. Now that the novelty of killing newbie players where they spawn has worn off, there’s a touch of civility mingled in with the chaos.

I once saw a roving band of high-level players in the lawless zones as I attempted a run from one bank to another with a fairly low-level hero, only to watch them pass within combat distance without so much as glancing at me.

“Cheers,” one said as they trotted by, leaving me thankful for the mercy.

Black Lives Matter, Presidential Candidates, Sit Down

Popular media coverage of Black Lives Matter in this presidential primary season often portrays activists in the movement as a less than civil bunch. Reporters tend to focus on their loudest, not their most civil, tactics. The group got a lot of attention, for example, for their action this past August 8, in which activistsaccording to Time onlineinterrupted Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a rally in Seattle, stopping the politician from speaking. Two women and a man, the article explains, shoved Sanders aside, grabbed the microphone, and addressed the crowd themselves.

Black Lives Matter, Presidential Campaigns, Sit Down
Photo by Tiffany Von Arnim, via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed CC-BY.

According to The Las Vegas Sun, Jeb Bush saw a similar disruption in Nevada just days later. And so did Hillary Clinton at a rally in New Hampshire.

But disruption is only one tactic that Black Lives Matter employs. And while the group may seem to privilege the adversarial over the civil at times, this article at Medium by DeRay Mckesson shows us that this is just the beginning of the story, and that civility, too, is well within the group’s arsenal of tools.

Mckesson, who is himself a Black Lives Matter activist, updates readers on a series of meetings that he and others have had these past few weeks with candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and on their plans to sit down for discussions with other candidates including Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, and Martin O’Malley.

The movement, according to what Mckesson has written, seems to take a page from the Institute’s own Student Legislative Seminars. In the Student Legislative Seminars, teams of high school students led by Institute officers choose and research one exigent problem, decide their positions on the issues together through active dialogue with one another, then meet – in this case with members of Congress and their staff – to share their concerns and opinions. The process requires that students find consensus. And it requires that they are able to advocate forcefully for their needs and beliefs while at the same time respecting others’ positions.

The Black Lives Matter strategy is not exactly this one, but it’s close. Mckesson writes that in preparation for meeting with the candidates, activists do extensive research: they review their previously stated policy positions and the campaigns published platform, in order to develop specific questions on focused topics.

He writes that they choose a relatively narrow list of topics about which to talk: issues related to policing, income inequality, marijuana legalization, legislative avenues to address racial inequality, and civil asset forfeiture in the case of Bernie Sanders; and criminal justice reform, prison privatization, and violence against the black trans community in the case of Hillary Clinton.

He tells us that the group recognizes that it is not just the candidate, but also their aides, who need to be involved. The staff, he writes, are often best versed in the details of specific legislation or policies.

And he tells us that, regardless of party affiliation, the movement is open to meeting with any candidate seeking to be the next President to discuss these ideas.

Based on Mckesson’s description, not everything about these interactions seems conventionally civil. The article repeatedly uses the term push to describe how activists interact with candidates. As in:

We pushed HRC to clarify her position on demilitarizing the police, pushing her to go beyond ending the use of federal funds by police departments to buy military equipment.

But pushing, from the perspective of the activists, may not be unwarranted. As Patrisse Cullors wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, there is a perception that the Democratic Party in particular has milked the Black vote while creating policies that completely decimate Black communities. And besides, there is no reason, from a civility perspective, not to advocate forcefully for your needs and beliefs as long as that forcefulness is tempered by respect and a willingness to listen.

And those two last elements do indeed seem to be present. Mckesson accepts Hillary Clinton’s response on police militarization, for example, when he says that she wanted to do more research before she can take a position. And he writes that – in the style of an honest discussion – Bernie Sanders pushed back in a discussion of income vs. wealth inequality: he sought to gain clarity on some of the data before he could come to any particular conclusion.

The results of these meetings have been productive. Mckesson writes that both Sanders and Clinton have released policy papers based partly on their outcomes, and that some of the ideas discussed made it into the recent Democratic debate.

But for our purposes on The Civility Blog, there are two issues that are even more important than any specific result. The first is that the Mckesson article offers further confirmation of media filtering: that media-generated narratives about most things – and especially issues related to race, class, or activism – are thoroughly shaped for one primary purpose: the project of attracting eyes and therefore selling ads.

The second important piece that we get from the Mckesson article is what amounts to a model. One thing we’ve seen in the media’s coverage of Black Lives Matter is that their tactics are often not in fact civil. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The sorts of meetings that Mckesson describes offer a way forward through discussion and the thoughtful exchange of ideas that is effective even, or perhaps especially, when the issues at hand are dire and require redress.

One could make the argument – and not be wrong – that without the direct action, without disrupting presidential candidates’ rallies, these meetings would never have happened at all. But more than a defense of this sort of incivility, that assertion suggests an important question: what steps can we take in our political culture so that more people – and especially young people of color – can have their voices heard and their needs met without having to stand up and shout?