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.

Civility Linkblogging: Marriage Equality, Classroom Management, and Social Media

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, look out for two main issues: how civility can (and does) enhance discussions about marriage equality and gay rights in general, and civility as a tool for classroom management. In the days surrounding the recent Supreme Court marriage legalizing same-sex marriage, we saw stories about how people on both sides of the issues have come together to have civil discussions, and we saw stories about public officials urging civility among their constituents. While outside of the United States, in the UK, we have an extended discussion by Scottish teacher and author Tom Bennett about the value of civility as a tool for modifying behavior in schools.

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:

On Same-Sex Marriage, Finding Civility but Not Common Ground
By Emily Cadei, at Newsweek, June 24, 2014

Yet even as they prepare to do battle on the policy front, both Red Wing and Vander Plaats plan to continue their dialogue, both publicly and privately. Several more public events are tentatively slated for this fall. Vander Plaats hopes it can demonstrate, to politicians and the public, alike that civility is not the same thing as conceding to the other side: “What they’re going to find is we’re not leaving our beliefs.” He’s also encouraging members of his evangelical community to do similar outreach with those on the other side of a particular issue.

Still, they’re just two voices in a cacophony of political campaigns, Super PACs and talking heads that have converged on the state in the advance of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses next February. “As we get more and more into this presidential political caucus time, can Bob and I on some level help de-escalate some of the anger, some of the aggressiveness and animosity” of campaign season? Red Wing wonders. “I don’t know.”

Indiana Attorney General Urges Civility, Respect for Marriage Ruling
Posted at the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, June 26, 2015

Indiana’s attorney general is asking residents to treat each other with civility and show respect for the U.S. Supreme Court following its ruling requiring all states to recognize same-sex marriage.

Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in a statement Friday that the court’s 5-4 decision won’t change much in Indiana because the state has allowed same-sex marriage since last year.

We Need to Help Children Develop Habits of Civility and Learning that Last Them a Lifetime
By Tom Bennett, at TES Magazine, June 26, 2015

I’ve worked with new teachers for years on this. I’ve run behaviour management forums for most of my career, and I’ve heard thousands of problems from year after year of teachers. I’ve visited well over 100 schools in my career, and the challenges are often the same: many staff don’t feel trained to handle behaviour, schools often lack clear and effective systems to manage behaviour and many senior staff are unsure how to create a system that works for all parties. This is too important to get wrong. …

Everyone wants a magic bullet intervention that costs little and raises attainment. Well, here it is: make sure every teacher is trained to run a room; make sure every leader and manager is trained to design systems that support behaviours that focus on the common good. Tweak those coordinates early enough in the career of every educator, and watch the lessons land.

Has Civility Lost Its Way on Social Media?
By Kathi Kruse, at Kruse Control, Inc., June 29, 2015

Has Civility Lost Its Way on Social Media? Or is social media just a reflection of a much bigger issue? Have we lost our way as a culture, where civility towards our fellow sentient beings has diminished to the point of no return?

After observing this situation for awhile now, I realize that some of it is simply people reacting. But reactionary behavior makes it easy to lose control of one’s faculties and good judgment. Things can get so bad that the concept of “think before you post” doesn’t even enter into your consciousness.

Make no mistake, misdirected anger and social media do not mix well.

Local League of Women Voters Aims for Civility at Public Meetings
By David Sneed, at SanLuisObispo.com, July 2, 2015

The nonpartisan group has been working on this subject for the past two years but has made it their main focus this year. On Tuesday, county supervisors will consider adopting a resolution by the group promoting civility in conducting business with elected officials, county staff and the public.

“This is not a whim; this is a passion,” said Marilee Hyman, immediate past president of the League. “Civil discourse is necessary to make democracy work.”

Supervisors are expected to approve the resolution. Last year, they voted unanimously to give a $1,800 grant to the League to fund its civil discourse campaign.

Marriage Equality, Suspicion, and Insular Thinking

A fair amount of uncivil discourse has passed through the American public sphere since the end of June when, in their decision on Obergefell vs Hodges, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex.

Ken Paxton, Attorney General of Texas, almost immediately released a non-binding legal opinion which, according to Robert Garrett of The Dallas Morning News, stated that clerks could refuse on First Amendment grounds to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because, as he says, of their religious objections. Paxton added in a press release that there are numerous lawyers who stand ready to assist clerks defending their religious beliefs, in many cases on a pro-bono basis, and that his office, too, stands in defense of their rights.

And Ken Paxton is not alone. In Tennessee, the beginning of July saw the entire staff of the county clerk’s office of Decatur County resign on religious grounds. In Nebraska, Sioux County clerk Michelle Zimmerman said that she will deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples because her religious beliefs prevent her from complying with the law. And in Kentucky, county clerk Casey Davis has called on the state legislature to pass a new law allowing couples to purchase marriage licenses online, so as not to have to violate his religious beliefs by issuing the licenses himself.

These cases in themselves are not inherently uncivil. Freedom of religion is a fundamental right in the United States, and it certainly seems worth having a frank conversation about how to implement this change in the interpretation of the law while respecting, to the greatest degree possible, everybody’s interests.

But in practice, these cases and the discourse that surrounds them are a perfect example of the kind of incivility that is born of a breakdown of communication. All parties are so busy talking to their ideological in-group, and so busy indulging their ideological in-group’s preconceived notions, that nobody can hear the other side speak.

And so when social conservatives over the past several weeks have stood up for religious freedom, too often pro-gay marriage factions have jumped to the least generous possible conclusions. And conservatives have jumped to that same ungenerous place when progressives have celebrated what seems very much like an affirmation of their identity, needs and beliefs.

To see the kind of vitriol this produces, one needs only look at the blanket accusations of bigotry bandied about on Twitter by folks who support the Obergefell ruling.

"Bigot homophobe Texas Attourney General @KenPaxtonTX looks like he might have some personal problems."

"Bigot Brownback Issues Order to Protect Religious Liberty After SCOTUS Ruling"

"Religious liberty does not include being a bigot! New battle for same sex marriage erupts in Texas."

"My hatred of people using religion as their reasoning for being against same-sex marriage is at an all-time high. YOU'RE A BIGOT."

And one needs only look at the kinds of suspicious discourses bandied about by Obergefell opponents. According to The Daily Caller, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal called the Supreme Court completely out of control, and said that the Obergefell decision amounted to an affront to God, country, and political affiliation. Hillary Clinton and The Left will now mount an all-out assault on Religious Freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment, Jindal opined.

While in his dissent on the case (pdf), Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito falls into the slippery slope fallacy, writing that the ruling will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy, and that those who cling to old beliefs will be relegated to whispering their thoughts in the recesses of their own homes for fear of public persecution.

The sad part about it is that each side seems to be proving the other right. Alito worries that opponents of gay marriage risk being labeled as bigots for their views, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen on Twitter. While progressives fear that resistance to the Supreme Court’s ruling is born of narrow-mindedness, and we’ve seen plenty of that, too. When former Arkansas governor and current presidential candidate Mike Huckabee says that legalization of same-sex marriage would lead to the “criminalization of Christianity,” and that the country “must resist and reject judicial tyranny,” what else should supporters of marriage equality think?

A solution to this – if in fact we collectively want one – exists in reconsidering the purpose of speech. Is the goal of public discourse merely political in the lowest sense of the word? Is it meant to score points, secure donors, and collect votes with the hope of getting elected the next time around? If so – if we want only to talk to the people who already agree with us – then the status quo works fine.

But if Ken Paxton and county clerks around the country are sincere in their concerns, and if a significant portion of the citizenry of the United States feels that their religious freedom is being trampled on by the Obergefell ruling, then speech might have to mean something broader: it might have to mean being quiet and listening, too.

For those of us who work on civility, the Institute’s definition of the term – that is, claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process – is almost a mantra: words repeated by rote, filled as much with ritual meaning as with relevant content.

But the Institute’s definition is certainly relevant here.

It’s time for uncivil progressives to take a break from sneering at social conservatives who look at the Bible, or the weight of history, and decide that same sex marriage really has no precedent. And 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. If we read beyond the insularity and fear, what both sides are expressing is that they want to have their identity, needs, and beliefs respected and protected by law. And through civil discussion – the sort of discussion where every party comes to the table honest about its desires and motivations – a solution where all sides can get what they want is far from beyond the realm of what’s possible.

Civility Linkblogging: Marriage Equality, Street Harassment, and Anger Management

Linkblogging
By Anita Pratanti, via flickr

This post is part of our ongoing effort to highlight discourse about civility around the web. Our articles for civility linkblogging come from a wide cross-section of blogs and newspapers, magazines and other websites, from the United States and abroad.

Notable among this week’s articles is one eloquent call for civility in debates over marriage equality, and a creative response by three Philadelphia women to the problem of harassment on the street and elsewhere. In the former, Indianapolis Star columnist Erika Smith reminds us that that not everyone who opposes same-sex marriage is a religious zealot. And not everyone who supports same-sex marriage is a rainbow-clad heathen. While in the latter, Rochelle Keyhan, Erin Filson, and Anna Kegler explain the impetus and impact of their groups, Hollaback Philly and Geeks for CONsent.

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:

Being Agreeable Is an Essential Trait
Posted by Orlaine I. Gabert at Greenbaypressgazette.com, August 12, 2014

Probably there are a good number of issues, concerns, likes, activities that are passionate for the person speaking, but are of little importance to you. In those instances you can listen attentively and thank the person for sharing.

Other times you are affected or passionate about the subject. After you have listened, you share your views respectfully without demeaning the person or their ideas. It may be possible to find some consensus, or you can both respect that each of you have a different view.

Why So Mad? Civility Experts Weigh In
Posted by Jennifer Brett at AccessAtlanta.com, August 15, 2014

“So much of our interaction takes place digitally now. When people don’t handle conflict well, they will often hide behind email. It’s so much easier to say mean things when you’re no longer looking someone in the eye.”

Eye-to-eye can be a more effective forum for reaching compromise than screen-to-screen, she said.

“Try to see the situation through the eyes of the other person,” she advised. “Realize they’re being mean and angry because they’re trying to protect something. There’s a reason they’re being so emotional. Have empathy that the person feels threatened.”

Flunking the Rules of Civility
Posted by Katie Coombs at the Reno Gazette-Journal, August 20, 2014

In the past 20 years, the emphasis in the schools, and now at home, has been on self-esteem and self-worth, and the value of learning to focus on others has slipped away. Teachers and parents alike are tip-toeing around kids and their unruly behaviors so that they don’t feel shamed by manners and discipline. Is it working? If we look around, we see spoiled disrespectful brats in most restaurants, schools and on athletic teams. These kids wouldn’t lift a finger to help their parents without arguing about it first or proclaiming how unfair it is to have to help support the daily grind of operating a house. Parents are exhausted and overwhelmed by these children and know they have created monsters, but don’t know what to do. If that is your household, then I would suggest establishing the rules of civility in your home.

Let’s Practice Civility in Debate over Same-Sex Marriage
Posted by Erika D. Smith at IndyStar.com, August 26, 2014

I’m asking you to remember that not everyone who opposes same-sex marriage is a religious zealot. And not everyone who supports same-sex marriage is a rainbow-clad heathen.

There are people in the middle. In fact, a lot of people are in the middle on this issue. People who don’t know what to think. The problem is we can’t hear them over the roar of rhetoric.

So I’m asking for civility — maybe even open-mindedness.

Three Philly Women Seek Civility on the Street and Equality in the World of Geekdom
Posted by Howard Gensler at Philly.com, August 28, 2014

On the street, the women say, one never knows when a simple catcall might lead to violence, or when relentless harassment could turn what might have been meant as an innocent remark into the final straw of aggravation.

For many women, walking around in public can be a nonstop series of lip smacks, ass pinches, vile come-ons and more.

“For some guys it’s just a catcall,” Keyhan said. “But they don’t realize that the catcall is just a prelude to all the other awful things that can happen in a public space. . . . If all it was was just, ‘Hey sexy, hey baby,’ I would not spend all my free time on this. But when you never know what’s going to come next, that’s the problem.”