Govinfo.gov Shows Us the Work of Governing

In the heat of the presidential primary season – amid ballots and debates, name calling, lawsuit threats, and no small amount of controversy about the value of the coin-toss as an electoral measure – it seems important from time to time to take a step back from both the sensationalism and the seriousness of choosing new elected officials and remember why we do it in the first place.

It’s easy, given the volume and intensity of media coverage that the presidential race receives, to forget that it’s not the only – or even the most important – feature of the American political landscape. The fact is that even as ballots are being cast, the work of governing – of setting, implementing, and enforcing policy – is still chugging along.

Govinfo.gov Shows Us the Work of Governing

There is no better reminder of this than the fact that, this past week, the Government Publishing Office (GPO) released a new online tool – govinfo.gov – that allows any interested citizen to track records of what the various branches of the Federal Government are up to. It’s like Google for government documents, said the GPO’s spokesperson, according to Roll Call:

Users can access the Congressional Record, track the course of legislation or perhaps dive into a treasure trove of information specifically on President Gerald Ford.

Government geekery aside, anyone from the general public may punch out “Obamacare” and get a copy of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — the agency’s most popular document at 14 million downloads in the last six years.

This new system is not an innovation so much as it is an evolution. For years the GPO has maintained FDsys, an online archive that has afforded the public searchable access to Federal Government documents. But govinfo.gov is much more robust. According to the GPO-provided overview of the system, it offers an overall enhanced user experience and a whole host of new features that make searching both easier and more powerful. Some of them include:

  • a new modern look and feel,
  • the capability to link related content,
  • two new ways to browse content: alphabetically and by category,
  • a new open-source search engine,
  • enhancements to the search filters, and
  • more options for sharing pages and content on social media.

Beyond the hype, govinfo.gov does in fact offer a user-friendly inoculation against the tunnel vision of the election season. Users can certainly find the kinds of historical documents Roll Call talks about. But perhaps more relevant for creating and maintaining an informed citizenry, it allows users to search by date, pulling all documents from the last day, week, month, six months, or year.

In the last seven days, for example, govinfo.gov tells us that one bill was introduced in the House of Representatives concerning research into dyslexia, and another was introduced to authorize funding for the Coast Guard. It gives us documents related to cases heard in Federal Court across the United States. And it gives us access to a dozen new Congressional Reports – explanations of pending bills that include information about their contents, potential effects, and budgetary impacts.

Moreover, it allows users to refine and filter search results. So if we only want congressional reports in our seven-day period, or if we only want documents produced by one single organization or author, we an easily find that information as well.

Govinfo.gov is basically technical. The documents provided by the GPO are the archival records of the Federal Government, and as such tend to be long and sometimes difficult to follow. But even a quick search of the headlines – of the names of what has been entered into the Federal record in the past week, or of what kinds of bills have just passed or are still pending – gives us a lot of information.

Part and parcel of civility is being informed. In order to be engaged with the process of governing, and in order to have the kinds of thoughtful opinions about which we can have a substantive debate, it is imperative that we know what kinds of options are actually on the table. We can garner a lot of this from the news. But sadly, in a media climate where only the most sensational stories gain headlines and where, even in a twenty-four hour cycle, there isn’t a lot of room for nuance, the news will only take us so far.

Govinfo.gov fills some of that gap. On the one hand, the information it returns isn’t sexy or particularly entertaining. But it does serve an important purpose. It highlights just how little most of us know about what the Federal Government actually does. And it remedies that situation, allowing us to see what is politically feasible and what is politically current so that we can make better decisions about what we believe, what policies we support, an even who we plan to vote for in the presidential primaries.

Playing “Controversial Opinion.”

Earlier this month, Sean Blanda, writing at Medium.com, had this thought-provoking essay that relates to a lot of our recent content here at The Civility Blog. Titled The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb, he comments on the impulse toward a team mentality when it comes to matters of opinion from politics to taste, and observes some of the ways that this leads to closed minds and an outright dismissal of anybody we perceive to be part of the opposing faction.

The problem, he says, stems from a psychological concept called false-consensus bias: the assumption we make that our values and beliefs are normal or widely held. It is fed by contemporary media outlets, which are increasingly segregated by ideological point of view. And it leads to the worst kind of echo chamber, one where those inside are increasingly convinced that everyone shares their world view, that their ranks are growing when they aren’t.

Blanda writes that the unfortunate results of this are a fundamental rejection of the possibility to consider that the people who don’t feel the same way you do might be right, and an assumption that opinions work like menu cards, where people who like the same TV shows, or movies, or music you do must also share the same views on social welfare, or banking reform, or immigration. It is a preference to see the Other Side as a cardboard cut out, he says, rather than as complicated individual human beings. And it is ultimately about belittling people rather than trying to understand them.

The problem that Blanda is describing is related to several we’ve talked about here before. False-consensus bias, like confirmation bias, is exacerbated by filter bubbling – the situation where media outlets, and especially websites, serve us content that is tailored to our established viewing preferences. And it is parallel to some of the research we wrote about in December: the idea that party affiliation in the United States is increasingly a matter of tribalism rather than mere electoral politics.

It is difficult, on the one hand, to fight the notion that our own points of view are what’s normal when – because of the sum of our previous search queries – companies like Google and Facebook adapt some or all of what we see to what they think we want. And on the other hand, it is difficult not to conceive of political identity as team identity when the filters account for aesthetic and political choices in exactly the same way. If our personalized list of Facebook trending topics, for example, consistently places filtered political news next to science, business, and culture, it only makes sense that our brains begin to fit them all together.

In any case, in his essay, Sean Blanda offers some useful suggestions for how to overcome this kind of thinking. He tells us that it is imperative that we have conversations with people with whom we disagree, and that in those conversations, we must not try to “win”:

Don’t try to “convince” anyone of your viewpoint. Don’t score points by mocking them to your peers. Instead try to “lose.” Hear them out. Ask them to convince you and mean it.

He suggests that we reconsider how we use social media. The next time you feel compelled to share a link, he suggests, ask yourself why you are doing it:

Is it because that link brings to light information you hadn’t considered? Or does it confirm your world view, reminding your circle of intellectual teammates that you’re not on the Other Side?

And he offers a compelling idea for a game that is, fundamentally, about instilling civility. He calls it Controversial Opinion, but it might as easily be called the same thing as his essay: The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb. The rules are simple, Blanda writes: don’t talk about what was shared during Controversial Opinion afterward and you aren’t allowed to “argue” — only to ask questions about why that person feels that way.

Each player in turn reveals opinions that they hold, but that they assume are unpopular, about any topic at all. And in the other players’ surprise, the illusion of homogeneity – of having a team or a tribe – is systematically destroyed. Like the intimate discussions that we somehow never seem to quite be able to have, Controversial Opinion reveals our collective diversity and requires that we seek to understand each other as people — not essentialize, or belittle, or make fun.

It requires respect to play. It requires empathy to play well. And it has the potential to be a gateway from which we can exit the filter bubble and move from adversarial confrontation to the sort of meaningful, civil discussion that has the potential to get things done.

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.

Civility, Empathy, and Tears

Civility, Empathy, and TearsIt’s an easy thing to get caught up in the idea that civility is basically cerebral. But as the past week has shown, its emotional reality is vitally important, too.

About a week ago, on January 5th, in a speech in which he announced some executive orders regarding gun control, President Obama shed very public tears as he spoke about the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Our unalienable right to life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, he said, with a crescendo of emotion, was stripped from first-graders in Newtown. First-graders. And from every family who never imagined that their loved one would be taken from our lives by a bullet from a gun. And then, wiping tears from his eyes, he told us: every time I think about those kids it gets me mad.

The President’s tears remind us that though it is not common, displays of raw emotion among American officials have become a part of the landscape of our political culture. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner, famous for his tears, once told a reporter that there are just some things that tug at me. He said that he can’t go to schools while campaigning. All of those little sweet kids, I’m a mess. And in 2012, as he discussed the resignation of Representative Gabrielle Giffords – who had herself been the victim of a mass shooting – he appeared to fight back tears on ABC’s Sunday show, This Week:

“I’ve never quite seen a farewell in the House like this,” he said. “A bipartisan effort, all the members were there. A sad day for the House.”

“But, a very brave lady,” Boehner added, choking up.

Progressives, over the years, have made fun of John Boehner’s publicly emotional style, producing lists of instances of tearful moments, or turning his quivering lip into online memes. And similarly, some conservative pundits this week called into question Obama’s sincerity, wondering – among other things – if he had a raw onion hidden behind his podium. Actor James Woods, on Twitter, suggested that the President’s were #CrocadileTears.

But the fact is that tears are powerful, and it behooves us to take them seriously. As Leonard Pitts Jr. of The Miami Herald says of President Obama’s speech: one grows used to thinking of politics as a craft practiced mostly by people who are only technically human – who are automatons programmed to court votes by any means, including cynical ones. But that’s not the reality. This moment destroyed that perception, he writes. The president wept and it was a starkly human thing.

Institute President and co-founder Cassandra Dahnke has made a similar observation. Tears show us that our public figures are more than politicians or lawmakers or position holders, she responded when asked about the significance of the President’s emotional moment. They are people – and while they are in unique positions, they aren’t any different from the rest of the us.

And that sameness is significant. That sameness highlights one of the core emotional realities necessary to have civility at all: empathy. Tears and other expressions of emotion are outward signs of internal connection. They are part of an economy of emotions that we all – at our best – share between us: the idea that my happiness depends on yours, and that when you suffer, I cannot help but suffer, too.

We often think of this sort of empathy as a feature of art and drama, but it is also the basis of our ability to engage in inclusive politics. Empathy allows us to respect others and make room for their feelings and needs – to make our footprint smaller so they can have space, too. When President sheds tears for the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting, he acknowledges that in some measure the pain of those deaths – the families’ grief and loss – is his pain, grief, and loss. And that connection opens the possibility of acknowledging and balancing conflicting needs.

In the speech, President Obama plainly states: I believe in the Second Amendment. He supports the right to bear arms. But empathy informs an acknowledgment that even where rights are concerned, there is no such thing as absolute good. He tells us this with words when he says that we all believe in the First Amendment … but we accept that you can’t yell “fire” in a theater. And he tells us again with his actions – when he cries.

Does this mean that his tears are a calculated political ploy, as folks like James Woods have suggested? No. But as John Boehner can surely attest, emotional displays need not be calculated to be rhetorically and politically significant.

In both cases – the President’s and the former Speaker of the House’s – tears get to the very personal layer that underlies our politics, the reason we have a political process at all. The fact that I have needs and beliefs that require acknowledgment and respect is basically emotional. And via empathy, my ability to accommodate the needs and beliefs of others is basically emotional, too.

So what we see when our elected officials shed tears amounts to a peek behind the curtain. In tears, their most human selves break through. And in these moments of humanity is the potential for a more civil politics: one that understands that our well-being is interconnected, and that negotiates public policy accordingly.

Political Correctness is a Red Herring; Civility is the Issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civility Linkblogging: Santa, Canada, and the Supermarket

Civility Linkblogging

A Lynx, because Linkblogging

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

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

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

Now — the list:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Implicit Bias, Political Identity

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

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

Implicit Bias, Political Identity

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

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

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

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

Implicit Bias, Political Identity

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

The results of the implicit association test are much the same as in the scholarships experiment: people who identify as Republicans and people who identify as conservative both code things associated with the Republican Party as “good” and things associated with the Democratic Party as “bad”; while for Democrats and liberals, it is the inverse. The results suggest that it isn’t with the rational part of the mind – the part that responds to ideas and ideologies – that people make judgments. We make the judgments based on partisan biases, and then rationalize after the fact.

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

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

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

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

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

Donald Trump, His Detractors, and the Rhetoric of Provocation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald Trump, His Detractors, and the Rhetoric of Provocation

Times of Israel, December 7, 2015

 

Donald Trump, His Detractors, and the Rhetoric of Provocation

Philadelphia Daily News, December 8, 2015

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

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

Donald Trump, His Detractors, and the Rhetoric of Provocation

The Institute obviously DOES NOT endorse any comparison of anybody, least of all Donald Trump, to Hitler.

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

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

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

Civility Linkblogging: The Classroom, The Senate, and India

Civility Linkblogging

A Lynx, because Linkblogging

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

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

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

Now — the list:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Civility Considerations for a Better Thanksgiving

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

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

Five Strategies for Thanksgiving Civility

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

Get acquainted with the 70/30 rule.

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

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

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

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

Consider the context for relatives’ beliefs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer is maybe, but probably not.

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

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

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

The personal is political, but maybe not at Thanksgiving.

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

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

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

Deescalate!

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

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

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

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

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