Houston’s Furr High School Wins $10 Million XQ Grant

Does civility matter? Yes it does.

In 2001, Dr. Bertie Simmons came out of retirement to become the principal of Houston’s Furr High school when no one else wanted to take the reigns. Six years later, concerned that gangs were ready to take over the school, Simmons called on us at the Institute and asked if we would take some of her students to Washington D.C. It might help, she thought, for them to learn about politics, and citizenship, and investment in public service.

We did, and we became one part of a series of events that changed students’ lives. In 2001, the school was dangerous. In 2007, it was only beginning to turn around. When we first walked into Furr High School, we were greeted with a physical altercation between a teacher and a student – with shoving, and yelling in the halls.

Today, walking down those same halls, the change is palpable. The students know that we are the folks who take groups to Washington D.C. But we aren’t the only ones who are treated with respect. Respect is the rule rather than the exception. And respect has led Furr High School to win a major award.

So what happened? Civility did.

Civility has been a theme threaded through Furr’s curriculum for years now. From their teachers in their classes, and every time we take a group to Washington D.C., students learn to claim their needs and listen past difference, to build consensus and even to speak with their elected representatives. Civility has become such a watchword at Furr that students now plan an annual “Civility in the Part” celebration at Herman Brown Park Pavilion.

You need only look at this short video to see what a dramatic effect civility has had on Furr High School.

The change is nothing if not a cause to celebrate building civility one person at a time, one community at a time, and one nation at a time. And with all our hearts, we would like to congratulate the students and teachers at Furr High School on winning the XQ: The Super School Project grant, which will bring $10 million over the next five years to reinvent what a high school can do.

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Point Taken from PBS Offers Debate with a Side of Civility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflecting on Civility on Our Eighteenth Anniversary

On April Fool’s Day of 1998, we launched the Institute for Civility in Government by walking the halls of Congress and introducing ourselves and the newly-formed organization we had been planning since the previous fall. We were met with laughter, puzzlement, bemusement, confusion, politeness, and in some offices – real interest. While some people who knew us and had been to Washington, D.C. with us immediately jumped on board with their membership and support, most people – both in D.C. and back home – wondered why we were concerned about civility. Some even asked us what the word meant.

Eighteen years later, people no longer wonder why we are concerned. Civility is one of those things that we tend to take for granted until we no longer have it. It is one of those things that we assume is just the norm until it isn’t. And then, faced with its opposite, we realize that civility is the all-essential glue that holds a diverse society together. It is the grease that keeps daily interactions moving forward and makes life in community possible. In the realm of government, it is what makes problem-solving possible. And we have some big problems to solve.

Since our launch, some things have changed. A 2016 poll by Weber Shandwick indicates that people have a greater awareness than ever of civility’s importance. 95% of participants now believe that its absence is a problem in the United States, compared with only 65% in 2010, when they first did the survey. Fully 70% now say that incivility in this country has risen to “crisis” levels, up from 65% in 2014. Increasingly, lack of civility in the United States has become a source of concern for people. And increasingly, according to the poll, people are ready to do something about it.

But some things have also remained the same. We still define civility for folks, and a lot of people have found our definition to be helpful. For us, civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs, and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. That is the definition that Tomas Spath and I came up with years ago, and it is still the one we and all the members of the Institute stand by today. It does not say we have to agree with one another. In fact it celebrates differences and tells us we should claim them. Differences are enriching. But they are also difficult. And our definition encourages us to focus on why we hold our positions, and on the strength of our beliefs, rather than demonizing those who think and believe differently.

But then as now, a definition – even a popular one – is not enough. Although there is an increased awareness of the importance of civility and a growing concern about its absence, people must take the next step. They must be willing to believe they can make a difference and turn this cultural drift around. They must believe that voices joined are voices heard, and that investments in teaching our youth civility today will pay off in a more civil nation tomorrow. Then as now, we must educate people about the Institute’s existence, and convince them to join.

Since we launched the Institute, a devoted group of Americans – and people from around the world – have joined our cause, and many more have made donations to support it. People have participated in our programs and shared our educational materials, and through that we have built a strong foundation for a movement. This week, on our eighteenth anniversary, is the time for you to add your voice to ours and become a member of the Institute for Civility in Government. It is no small thing, and though you might not see it today, it will make a big difference.

Sincerely,

Cassandra Dahnke & Tomas Spath
Co-Founders, Institute for Civility in Government

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.

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

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.

Putting Our Uncivil Presidential Race in Historical Perspective

There’s a sub-genre out there of news articles about civility that focus on its decline and impending demise. The most recent, perhaps, is an August column in the Jewish Journal that begins with the austere pronouncement that the last quarter of a century has witnessed the decline of civility in U.S. politics. But it is hardly the only article of its type. Olympia Snowe made news in 2014 when she called the decline of civility in political discourse one of the big issues with Congress. The 2012 Presidential election was rife with similar sentiments. And New York Times columnist David Brooks, in 2011, proclaimed that the problem of polarization and the loss of civility in our time may be attributed to the fact that civility’s roots in modesty have been carved away.

It’s hard, looking at the current crop of presidential hopefuls, to disagree with these assessments. More than a year out from the 2016 election, contenders in this vast field of candidates are lobbing ad hominem attacks at each other and the media, and competing, it seems – from certain perspectives at least – to state their policy positions in the most crass manner possible. The column in the Jewish Journal calls the current flashpoint … the media firestorm over The Donald’s misogyny and xenophobia. But Mr. Trump is not alone. And his party is not the only culprit.

The fact, however, that a devolution into epidemic incivility is an easy narrative for many of us to like does not make it accurate. And the fact that our current culture may reward politicians for boorish behavior does not mean that that was any less true twenty-five, or fifty, or one hundred fifty years ago.

Case in point: the 1884 presidential race.

In 1884, the Democrats put up former New York Governor Grover Cleveland against the Republicans’ James G. Blaine, who had been Secretary of State to Benjamin Harrison and James Garfield. The famous icon of incivility from that race is a certain political cartoon, promoted by Republicans, that dramatized the narrative that Cleveland had abandoned an illegitimate child in order to make his run for the White House. Republicans charged that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child while he was a lawyer in Buffalo, and chanted, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” at rallies and campaign stops.

But that was hardly the only uncivil trope that year. Charging that James G. Blaine was too deep in the pockets of lobbyists and that he had corruptly influenced legislation in favor of railroads, later profiting on the sale of bonds, Democrats and competing Republicans alike labeled him a liar and a crook. Political cartoons appeared that vivified the indelible nature of Blaine’s prior misdeeds by depicting him covered in tattoos. And at Democratic political events, the rallying cries included the chanted slogan: “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine.

Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa

James G. Blaine Marked With the Indellible Ink of Corruption

1884 saw a schism in the Republican party in which one prominent faction – the so-called Mugwumps – sided with the Cleveland campaign out of outrage at Blaine’s nomination. And it saw members of the remaining Republicans engage in personal attacks against that faction, including intimations that its members were homosexual.

We tend to think of incivility in politics, and especially during campaigns, as a modern innovation because it is so amplified by television news, and especially by the 24-hour news cycle. But even at the unamplified volume of 1884 – before radio, much less television – it was no less present.

If anything, we in the twenty-first century have good cause for hope on civility in some respects. Our politicians may pepper their discourse with terms like anchor babies, and our media may make derisive comments about the state of one leading candidate’s hair. But no matter how harrowing it becomes, our political culture is not that of the 1855-56 34th Congress. And no matter how uncivil our words, none of our current crop of politicians is like U.S. Representative Preston Brooks who, on May 22, 1856, beat Senator Charles Sumner with a walking cane on the Senate floor, causing him a severe head trauma from which it took three years of convalescence to recover.

Contemporary columnists are correct in their assessment that we need more civility in our politics. It is obviously to all our advantages to talk through our differences instead of slinging mud (or wielding blunt weapons). And it is certainly to all our advantages to be in a position where we have partners on the other side of the political aisle rather than rivals or enemies.

But to overstate the case – to suggest that Washington D.C. is a sinking ship and that among its denizens, it’s every rat for himself – does no one any good. And aside from its inaccuracy, it seems demoralizing rather than motivating to suggest that the uncivil present is any worse than our uncivil past.

Civility and Privileged Distress

Civility and Privileged DistressKnow thyself, reads the ancient Greek aphorism. And in light of our recent post about the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality, that aphorism seems particularly relevant. Part of civility – undoubtedly – is about listening to and taking seriously the positions of people with whom we disagree. If the purpose of a discussion is to solve problems rather than score points, we all win. But part of civility, too, is about self-examination. It’s about understanding our motivations and our position in society. If we don’t know where we are coming from and why it is we want what we want, even the most civil negotiation will be of limited use.

So with that in mind, I’d like to point you all to a 2012 blog post by Doug Muder of The Weekly Sift. The post is a little old, and it definitely comes from one particular position along the ideological spectrum of American politics. But it introduces an important concept, privileged distress, that is key for folks who are interested in civility to understand.

To explain privileged distress, Muder points us at the film Pleasantville. In the film, he writes, George Parker is a TV father and the patriarch of a perfect fifties family. He returns from work at night to a smiling wife, adorable children, and dinner on the table. And when one day that doesn’t happen, he is confused, and sad, and feels that the universe has gone awry. Muder writes:

I’m not bringing this up just to discuss old movies. As the culture evolves, people who benefited from the old ways invariably see themselves as victims of change. The world used to fit them like a glove, but it no longer does. Increasingly, they find themselves in unfamiliar situations that feel unfair or even unsafe. Their concerns used to take center stage, but now they must compete with the formerly invisible concerns of others.

This is the essence of privileged distress. George Parker is the biggest player in his patriarchal universe. Whether he knows it or not, he benefits from immense privilege. And on the day that patriarchy – at least as he understands it – goes away, he feels that loss acutely. The world changes around him. His position relative to his family changes. And it’s a change that is legitimately scary – one about which he is right to be concerned.

The thing is, though, that the reason it’s all so scary is that what has come before the change – the patriarchy – doesn’t read to George Parker as privilege. It just reads as normal, as the thing he’s known his whole life. So when dinner isn’t on the table when he returns home from work, and when he isn’t greeted by his wife and children at the door, he perceives this as injustice. Injustice is being done to George Parker in that he had been at the top of the social food chain, and now he must contend with being merely an equal.

As Doug Muder says, the distress of the George Parkers of the world is real. It’s painful, and we need to listen to it and acknowledge it.

But even as we accept the reality of George’s privileged-white-male distress, we need to hold on to the understanding that the less privileged citizens of Pleasantville are distressed in an entirely different way…. George deserves compassion, but his until-recently-ideal housewife Betty Parker (and the other characters assigned subservient roles) deserves justice. George and Betty’s claims are not equivalent, and if we treat them the same way, we do Betty an injustice.

This is where we return to the idea of self-knowledge as a key component of civility. As we interact with the people around us, we need to understand the power gradients in which we exist. We need to figure out to what degree, when we feel slighted, we are like George Parker who just wants his dinner. And we need to figure out to what degree we are like Betty who has been living in some sense as a servant for most of her adult life.

Both positions are legitimate. In both cases, we have something real for which to negotiate. But both positions don’t necessarily have equal import. And knowing how much ground we have to give as we advocate for our identity needs and beliefs – knowing the point at which our needs start to degrade someone else’s – depends on understanding our own privilege. If we’re already George Parker in a given situation, we may have a great deal more leeway to make concessions than if we’re Betty.

Returning to what I wrote the other week about the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling, this is key to the idea of negotiating by listening. I wrote in that post that it’s time for uncivil progressives to take a break from sneering at religious freedom arguments; and that it’s time for uncivil social conservatives to stop dismissing claims from same sex couples that what they want is only what everybody else already has. Self knowledge and an understanding of this concept of privileged distress is a good way to do that. All sides at the negotiating table need to understand where their privilege lies, and how the gradients of social power run.

Confronting those hard truths means asking ourselves whether my religious freedom is more important than your marriage. It means asking ourselves whether your pain at a changing social landscape can be legitimate, and not just a selfish affront to my impending happiness. And it means asking ourselves whether – if we can give up on the idea of our own privilege – our needs and beliefs are really in conflict at all.

There’s no definite answer to any of these things. But this is one means by which we can approach a discussion of the marriage equality ruling that has the potential to yield more than just hurt feelings. Being honest with ourselves is how we can be honest about our needs as we interact with others. And doing that gives us the best chance to come away from a discussion with a sense that we’ve accomplished something worthwhile.