Antonin Scalia’s Indelicate Brand of Civility

Justice Antonin Scalia
Photo by Stephen Masker, CC-BY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent Poll Confirms: Civility Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Institute Featured in Houston Chronicle Blog, The Peace Pastor

Last Sunday, the Institute and its definition of civility were featured in The Houston Chronicle as part of its ongoing blog series, The Peace Pastor, written by Marty Troyer of the Houston Mennonite church.

Troyer, writing about what we might perceive to be difficult conversations, tells us that there are two keys to preparing for such an encounter. First, he says, is to consider civility – that the point of any hard interaction must be claiming and caring for our identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. And second, that we must be self-differentiated – have the capacity to be yourself while remaining connected to your community.

This pair of important precepts, says Troyer, might better prepare us for the sorts of conversations that are necessary – even key – but that we might not feel ready to face. Like discussion of how faithful Christians should relate to our lesbian and gay friends and families.

We can, Troyer writes, humbly acknowledge our LGBT members and family have repeatedly stated that traditional non-affirming policies are dehumanizing and experienced as violence. We can accept that the LGBT community is statistically the most vulnerable to sexual abuse and overwhelmingly find non-affirming policies leave them with no other option but non-participation in the life of the church.

It needn’t change our opinions, he writes, but accepting that other people have values and needs that are important to them, even as ours are important to us, puts us in a position to open a dialog rather than end it.

What Troyer advocates here is a position close to Martin Marty and Richard Mouw’s notion of convicted civility. In an article for The Civility Blog last year, guest author John Backman wrote that convicted civility asks those of us with strong convictions to honor all others, seek their well-being, and hear their deepest convictions, particularly when we disagree.

And this is what Troyer is asking for here.

Troyer does not say that we must accept the needs, values, and opinions of others without reservation. He doesn’t say that we must bend to the will of others without regard for our own. What he says is that by first knowing our own minds, and then accepting that others know their minds too, we can do more to make sure that everybody’s needs are met.

We can maybe compromise a little bit on policy without compromising too much on integrity. And that’s a pretty good place to be.

Civility and the Recent Nigerian Election

As in all things, it is good to have some perspective when it comes to issues of civility. So often, here in the United States, we conflate civility with etiquette and good manners. There’s something to that. As when Christa Dowling, blogging at The Huffington Post, writes that we should be concerned that common courtesy is on the wane. Coarse language, she writes, has become part of the public discourse, technology like smartphones demand more and more attention, and the result is a breakdown of the kind of communicative discourse, which helps to build and grow strong personal and business relationships.

This is important. One could argue, as Dowling does, that civil society is predicated on having a common sense of etiquette and manners – that those things allow us to make our needs known without giving offense, and to listen to the needs of others without being offended ourselves. And one would not be wrong.

But when we narrow our view of civility just to the question of manners, or even when we narrow it to the question of public policy debates (as we often do on this blog), we miss a larger implication of the term. As The Nigerian Tribune pointed out in April, civility is about doing those things that are necessary for the good of the whole, even when they are personally unpleasant – even when they involve ceding power.

Writing about the recent Nigerian elections, the Tribune, on April 3, reported that the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) has described the acceptance of defeat by President Goodluck Jonathan in the last presidential election as a demonstration of political civility and statesmanship.

Consider that: acceptance of defeat in a political election – the willingness to step aside – as a face of civility.

Nigeria
Nigeria

The MOSOP, a group which represents the indigenous Ogoni people of southern Nigeria, also commended Nigerians for the peaceful national polls, which it said were imperfect but successful. And it called on the nation’s elections commission to entrench transparency in its organisation and management of elections.

All of these things are aspects of civility in a way that is surprisingly similar to what Christa Dowling says about manners. Like manners and etiquette, engagement in peaceful elections and the willingness to cede power comprise the basic machinery necessary to live in a community that allows everybody to get a little bit of what they want.

Like ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ voting is a way of communicating your needs in a manner that is peaceful and respectful to others. And abiding by the results of elections, similarly, is a way of communicating that you have heard and acknowledge what others have had to say.

But unlike ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ the stakes are that much higher. The feeling of being offended or unacknowledged because of bad manners can lead to violence. But all told, those cases are isolated and rare. On the other hand, invalid elections and the refusal of incumbents to leave office is a recipe for violence. It communicates a disrespect for the cumulative will of community-members and a disdain for the machinery that allows for productive civil discourse at all.

We could think of this as the sort of thing that’s an issue in Nigeria, but not the United States. But if we did, we would be wrong. In his 1796 farewell address, as part of his condemnation of political parties, George Washington discusses just this sort of thing. He says:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Because of parties or whatever else, says Washington, we tend as a society toward an erosion of the underlying institutions – voting, terms of office, etc. – that make democratic rule work. And we must be ever vigilant to maintain them, to maintain this face of civility, in order to keep formal and permanent despotism at bay.

Manners are important, in other words, but they are just one face of the larger notion of civility of which we must be more aware.

Senator Susan Collins delivers the Margaret Chase Smith Public Affairs Lecture

One month ago, Senator Susan Collins delivered the Margaret Chase Smith Public Affairs Lecture at the University of Maine. Her topic was hyper-partisanship and the loss of civility in Washington D.C. And her words are worth repeating here.

According to The Maine Campus, the student newspaper at the University of Maine, she told a room of students, faculty, and members of the community that the problem of hyper-partisanship has led to an unwillingness to compromise on both sides of the political aisle, and to a culture of political inaction, gridlock, and endless infighting. And she told her audience that for too many [politicians] today, achieving solutions is not the primary goal.

In a guest column in the Portsmouth Herald, Senator Collins repeated much of what she said in her lecture, writing that the sad fact of the matter is that often as not, attempts at reaching across the aisle are greeted with scorn by strident partisans who accuse the compromiser of being a “sell out”. And she said that the reason is in no small part the way that governance has been subsumed by a culture of constant campaigning. The problem is aided and abetted by cable and radio shows whose ratings often depend on reaching small but highly partisan members of the electorate.

But, said Collins, the system is not beyond repair: A return to civility and a spirit of compromise must be driven by concerned citizens. And we all must work in our communities for a renewed social climate characterized by civility and respect for differing viewpoints.

She said that civility does not require us to stifle our disagreements, and it does not require that we avoid unpleasant truths. But there is a right way and wrong way to have these disagreements. And a good start, Collins said, would be to emulate Senator Margaret Chase Smith herself and endeavor to avoid what, sixty-five years ago, she called the Four Horsemen of Calumny – Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.

Here are Senator Collins’s full remarks, as recorded by the University of Maine:

And here is a transcript of her talk via the Bangor Daily News.

Alec Baldwin, “Good-Bye, Public Life,” and Civility

From the EditorsOrdinarily, this is not a venue where — we hope — one expects to find celebrity news. But from the perspective of civility, Alec Baldwin’s new piece in New York Magazine, “Good-Bye, Public Life,” is worthy of special consideration. In it, Baldwin offers a firsthand account of the very real decline in civility when it comes to how we interact with public figures — with actors, members of the media, and politicians. While at the same time, he demonstrates the way in which incivility is virulent, taking root even — or perhaps especially — in the author himself.

Baldwin is most insightful when it comes to the adversarial stew that has him, in his words, done with it — with being a public figure beyond the work you are actually paid for. Now, he says, everyone has a camera in their pocket. It is a culture of predatory photographers and gossip sites where folks get paid to taunt you and catch you doing embarrassing things. It is a culture where anything good you do is tossed in a pit, and you are measured by who you are on your worst day.

What’s the Boy Scout code? Trustworthy. Loyal. Helpful. Friendly. Courteous. Kind. Obedient. Cheerful. Thrifty. Brave. Clean. Reverent. I might be all of those things, at certain moments. But people suspect that whatever good you do, you are faking. You’re that guy. You’re that guy that says this. There is a core of outlets that are pushing these stories out.

But though Baldwin eloquently diagnoses the problem, he cannot diagnose himself. And by turns, he propagates many of the uncivil discourses he decries, as well as some of those uncivil behaviors for which he, in his own words, has been vilified.

Baldwin is quick to publicize the shortcomings of others. Harvey Levin, founder of TMZ.com, has little regard for the truth. Rachel Maddow is a phony who doesn’t have the same passion for the truth off-camera that she seems to have on the air. Shia LeBeouf is sulky, resentful, and — in rehearsals for the play Orphansattacked me in front of everyone. And the liberal and conservative media are now precisely equivalent, at least insofar as they are both able to produce only tripe.

He is careless with his words. In the same breath that he laments having been labeled a homophobic bigot, he calls one person he met through an LGBT advocacy group in Hawaii an F-to-M tranny. This despite the fact that the term is widely regarded as offensive — equivalent to racial slurs used against people of color (for more consideration of the t word, see this piece in The Advocate, published just days before Baldwin’s).

And he is quick to believe that he is being wrongly persecuted. For him, journalists Andrew Sullivan and Anderson Cooper are the Gay Department of Justice, harrying him with the help of GLAAD and TMZ’s Harvey Levin for the mere crime of having made a series of actual anti-gay slurs, one of which may, according to Baldwin, have sounded like “faggot”—but wasn’t.

The issue with Baldwin’s essay is that even as it is implicitly a plea for civility, framed as an indictment of the increasingly toxic popular culture that is driving basically good guys like him away, it misses the civility mark itself. Baldwin is good at claiming and caring for his own identity, needs and beliefs. He identifies some serious issues, at least as they pertain to him. But he cannot quite manage to do so without degrading someone else’s in the process.

Alec Baldwin is right as far as it goes: the heart, the arteries of the country are now clogged with hate. The fuel of American political life is hatred. And the media, liberal and conservative, often masquerades as Hate Incorporated. But “Good-Bye, Public Life” does little to ameliorate the problem. And in parts, it does quite a lot to aggravate it.

Institute Featured in the Smoky Mountain News

The Institute’s definition of civility was featured in Columbus, Georgia’s Ledger-Enquirer, and in the Houston Chronicle, at the end of November. But it looks like we missed one: the Institute also appeared in a column titled ‘Civility Begins with Us’ in the Smoky Mountain News — a weekly newspaper out of Waynesville, North Carolina.

Institute Featured in the Smoky Mountain News

The November 20 column, written by retired seminary professor Doug Wingeier, offers five approaches to dealing with disagreement and conflict — withdrawing, smoothing, compromising, forcing, and negotiating. And it makes the argument that while each has its place, and while each can be approached with civility and respect, only in negotiating — and to a lesser extent in compromising — is it possible to gain a satisfying, productive result.

In coming to this conclusion, Wingeier writes about the Institute button that he wears on his jacket — Civility is Catching: Pass It On! — and he quotes the Institute’s core definition of civility, and part of the extended definition, too. Civility, he writes, is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. And it is:

Disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, staying present with those with whom we disagree, and negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone’s voice is heard and nobody is ignored. And civility begins with us.

We contacted Doug Wingeier to ask why he chose the Institute’s definition, and he told us that when he Googled civility, ours was the definition that was right on target for the column, and for civic discourse in general. He continued:

I believe that all human beings, as children of God — whether I agree with them or not — are persons of infinite worth and deserve respect as such. Verbal abuse can be as damaging as physical abuse, demeans both object and speaker, undermines community, and subverts one’s objective of making a point or accomplishing a goal.

And he told us that he thought the Institute’s project was a key part in building a truly democratic society.

We couldn’t agree more.

And if you do too — if you believe in the efficacy of civil speech and civil action to solve problems, and in the importance of treating one’s neighbors with respect, friends and adversaries alike — add your voice to ours. Click here to join the Institute for Civility in Government today. Or here to make a donation.

Institute in the Houston Chronicle

First it was Columbus, Georgia’s Ledger-Enquirer. And now it’s the Houston Chronicle. The last half of November saw the Institute’s definition of civility quoted in not one, but two guides to holiday comportment.

Houston Chronicle

The first, of course, was Dimon Kendrick-Holmes’s November 22 column, The Word for Today, and for the Holidays, which we featured last week.

But even more recently, the definition was featured in a Chronicle blog post by The Peace Pastor, Marty Troyer, simply titled Survival Guide for the Holidays.

In Troyer’s post, he tells us that Thanksgiving — and the Holiday Season as a whole — is all about extroverted time with people who believe differently, vote differently, function differently, parent differently, eat differently, relax differently, entertain differently, pray differently, and expect differently than you do. It is a time, he writes, that is as ripe for anxiety as it is for giving thanks.

But to this, he tells us, civility is the solution.

I love the definition of civility from Tomas Spath: “Civility” is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. Speak the truth, tell your story and don’t let anyone run all over you. The Jesus ethic does not demand you lose arguments. Honesty is essential. But so is granting others the same amount of respect you desire. Don’t in any way hide your beliefs, but at the same time stay engaged with those you disagree with. Taking a learning, rather than a “teaching” posture, can often diffuse the anxiety and shows respect for those around the table, even if you experience them as “enemies.”

As we wrote last week, Institute’s definition of civility — and its insistence on a more civil discourse at every level of society — is catching on. The Ledger-Enquirer’s Dimon Kendrick-Holmes told us that it is applicable well beyond the bounds of government. And he is absolutely right.

But it cannot spread alone.

If you believe in the efficacy of civil speech and civil action in Washington D.C., or City Hall, or around the family table, add your voice to ours. Click here to join the Institute for Civility in Government today. Or here to make a donation.

Civility Definition featured in Columbus, Georgia’s Ledger-Enquirer

Civility Definition featured in Columbus, Georgia's Ledger-EnquirerLast week saw the Institute’s definition of civility featured in Columbus, Georgia’s Ledger-Enquirer. As part of his November 22 column, The Word for Today, and for the Holidays, executive editor Dimon Kendrick-Holmes quotes it in full:

Claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.

And he comments astutely that it is as applicable around the Thanksgiving table — among relatives with whom one may have significant personal and political differences — as it is in Congress’ hallowed halls.

The proof, he writes, is in his own personal history. Kendrick-Holmes recounts a visit from some eight years past in which he — a veteran — opened his home to a set of relatives who had come to protest at the army base at Fort Benning, just outside of Columbus.

There were some awkward moments, he writes, like when his house guests thought it wonderful that he had spent four years living abroad, only to find out — to their chagrin — that it was as part of a military assignment.

But civility saved the day.

Civility, he writes, allows us to focus on the things you have in common, and try to listen and learn about a few things you don’t. And it insists that — from literature, to shape note singing, to the state of education in America — there are always more topics of conversation that bring us together than split us apart.

We asked Dimon Kendrick-Holmes why he chose the Institute’s particular definition of the word. And here is what he said: the usual web dictionaries weren’t giving me much more than “politeness” and “courtesy”. And when I typed “define civility” in Google, the Institute’s definition really stood out.

Dimon Kendrick-Holmes isn’t the only person who thinks so. And his column in the Ledger-Enquirer is just the latest example of how the Institute’s definition of civility — and its insistence on a more civil discourse at every level of society — continues to spread. But it cannot spread alone.

If you want to add your voice to the chorus calling for civility, click through and join the Institute for Civility in Government today. If you support the institute’s core values, and its mission to facilitate dialogue and teach respect, click here to make a donation.

And certainly, as Dimon Kendrick-Holmes tells us in his column: let’s all focus a little bit on civility this holiday season.