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

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

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

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

Now — the list:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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?

Bernie Sanders in the Belly of the Beast

Just to be clear: the Institute for Civility in Government does not endorse any specific policy positions or candidates for office. And we are not endorsing Senator Bernie Sanders for any kind of office now. That said, this week Bernie Sanders had a moment that is exemplary of many of the faces of civility that we explore here on this blog. And we do feel that it is important to give credit where credit is due.

Sanders, a left-wing, politically independent, self-proclaimed socialist from the small northern state of Vermont, running for President as a Democrat, chose to travel to Lynchburg, Virginia this week to speak at Liberty University, a conservative Evangelical Christian institution founded by the late famed televangelist Jerry Falwell, and run today by his son.

His speech, as Jennifer Harper of The Washington Times writes, covered some familiar Sanders ground: he talked about poverty, health care and insurance challenges, youth unemployment, and unequal wealth distribution… equating them with injustice and a lack of ethics and morality. But in framing those positions – and in explaining why he came to Liberty University at all – this is what he had to say:

Let me start off by acknowledging what I think all of you already know. And that is the views that many here at Liberty University have and I, on a number of important issues, are very, very different. I believe in a woman’s rights and the right of a woman to control her own body. I believe gay rights and gay marriage.

Those are my views, and it is no secret. But I came here today because I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse.

Too often in our country — and I think both sides bear responsibility for us — there is too much shouting at each other. There is too much making fun of each other.

Now, in my view, and I say this as somebody whose voice is hoarse, because I have given dozens of speeches in the last few months, it is easy to go out and talk to people who agree with you…. That’s not hard to do. That’s what politicians by and large do.

We go out and we talk to people who agree with us.

But it is harder, but not less important, for us to try and communicate with those who do not agree with us on every issue.

And it is important to see where if possible, and I do believe it is possible, we can find common ground.

It is not insignificant, here, that Senator Sanders talks about civility by name. That in itself is valuable in what may well be an uncivil Presidential campaign season.

But what is so important about this statement – what makes it exemplary – is that Sanders insists that we talk, not shout, across the aisle. If the point of the governing process – as we here at the Institute believe – involves listening past one’s preconceptions and disagreeing without disrespect in order to achieve policy outcomes that are acceptable and beneficial to as many people as possible, then the simple act of speaking to the (so-called) other side is an important first step.

And in our bubbled media environment, where it is entirely possible for individuals on the left or the right to see only news that supports their ideologies, going in person to a venue that The Washington Times‘ Cal Thomas jokingly calls the belly of the beast is perhaps the most effective way to bridge that divide.

Sanders’s message, as Laura Turner of the Religion News Service puts it, is that if we could all get on the same page about the idea that we ought to treat other people the way we want to be treated, the world would be a better place to live than it is right now. Sanders says this when he tells Liberty University’s students that if nothing else, progressives and conservative Christians should be on the same page about Matthew 7:12: so in everything, do to others what you would have them to do to you. And he says it, too, as he ponders civility: that there is too much shouting at each other. There is too much making fun of each other. And every low blow is an instance where we fail to recognize that disagreement isn’t the end of a conversation, but the beginning.

Sanders, in this speech, is engaging in what Martin Marty calls convicted civility. It is the notion, as John Backman put it here on The Civility Blog last year, that people of strong conviction should seek to have their views heard and respected; but in doing so, they should seek with equal earnestness to hear and respect the convictions of others, even – or perhaps especially – when they disagree.

And in doing so, Sanders is offering a good lesson to all the prospective candidates for every office going into the 2016 election season – and to all the rest of us, too. If more candidates were willing to engage, rather than shun, their version of the belly of the beast, they might have more success listening and being listened to. And in the process, they might find the kind of consensus that leads to good governing and productive policy, and not just a spirited campaign.