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.

Extreme Policy Positions: An Experiment

Back in February, we looked at some experimental data from political scientists Michael J. LaCour and Donald P. Green that offered insight into the less rational side of our political beliefs, and into the value of face-to-face conversations with the objects of our prejudices in moderating our positions and changing our minds. Taking the issue of gay marriage as a test case, their study, published in Science, concluded that a rational argument in favor of marriage equality, when combined with direct interaction with a flesh-and-blood gay activist, was the most effective route to changing minds – and to having those changes stick. And they concluded that the rational argument alone was inadequate to the task.

Today, we look at a different face of our less-than-rational political selves: unjustified confidence in our understanding of the issues. In a 2013 study published in Psychological Science, authors Philip M. Fernbach, Todd Rogers, Craig R. Fox, and Steven A. Sloman examine the mentality of extreme political beliefs, and some strategies for how they might be moderated, better opening the door to the possibility of compromise.

Extreme Policy Positions: An Experiment

Fernbach and his colleagues look at what they see as a connection between extremity of position and depth of understanding. They contend that when people are required to confront their relative ignorance on a given political issue, they become more likely to abandon their extreme position, and to embrace more moderate positions instead. People tend to have unjustified confidence in their understanding of policies, they write, and when they are asked – specifically – to explain those policies, the illusion of understanding evaporates and they become more open to other sorts of views.

To test this, the authors conducted three experiments. In the first, they asked participants to rate how well they thought they understood six hot-button political issues – issues like raising the retirement age for Social Security and imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran for their nuclear program. They asked the participants to provide explanations for the policies they claimed to support, and then, after that, re-rated both how well participants thought they understood the policies, and how extreme their positions were.

Across all six political issues, Fernbach and his colleagues found that asking people to explain how policies work decreased their reported understanding of those policies and led them to report more moderate attitudes toward those policies.

In their second experiment, the researchers sought to determine whether it was having to explain the policies specifically that moderated participants’ positions, or whether some other in-depth discussion – like enumerating reasons why they held the policy attitude they did – would be adequate. Here, they had half of their participants explain, and half enumerate their rationale. And what they found was that the latter was inadequate: enumerating reasons did not lead to any change in position extremity at all.

Finally, Ferbach and his colleagues’ third experiment tested whether increased moderation on political issues would lead to less material support for political figures and organizations that advocate for those extreme political positions. Participants were given the opportunity to donate money to organizations that supported their initial extreme position. And after asking participants to explain their position, what the researchers found was that, indeed, they were less likely to show that kind of material support.

From the perspective of civility, what is interesting about this study is less the increase in political moderation than the question of understanding. Civil discourse – the kind of discourse where I can claim my needs even as I recognize that you have valid needs, too – does not necessarily require that we hold middle-of-the-road views. But it does require understanding. It requires that we understand that there is more than one valid point of view on most political issues. And it requires that we understand – at least a little bit – the intricacies of the policy position we would like to see implemented.

In their conclusion, Fernbach and his fellow researchers write that:

Previous research has shown that intensively educating citizens can improve the quality of democratic decisions following collective deliberation and negotiation. One reason for the effectiveness of this strategy may be that educating citizens on how policies work moderates their attitudes, increasing their willingness to explore opposing views and to compromise.

And this is really the point. It matters less that we all moderate our attitudes than that we understand the policies on which we claim to hold such strong opinions. The more we understand, the more it becomes clear just how little we understand. And it is from that place – from a self-reflective acknowledgment of our own ignorance – that we can begin to see that our adversaries may have a point, and that their point of view may deserve serious consideration, too.

Civility Linkblogging: high school, history, and Hakarat Hatov

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 links feature two pieces that are particularly notable. The first is an article by J. Patrick Coolican that should remind us, in slightly irreverent terms, that while working toward civility is important, incivility is not a new problem in the United States. It is as old as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, as old as Senator Charles Sumner being beaten on the floor of the Senate by Representative Preston Brooks. And acting as though it is a product of 21st century gridlock is disingenuous.

The second notable piece is in The Times of Israel. There, Rabbi Arnold Samlan makes the simple and powerful observation that we can learn civility — perhaps best — from the people with whom we most vehemently disagree. He tells us that simply recognizing when another human being has done something good for you should provide us enough common ground to cross political lines.

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 Civility a Lost Art?
Posted by Lynne Agress at The Baltimore Sun, March 12, 2015

When we live among others, we must be aware of them. Too many individuals think the world revolves only around them.

“Be agreeable,” says Professor Forni. Benjamin Franklin put it even better: “If you [want to] be loved, [then] love and be lovable,” which is, of course, a rephrasing from the Bible: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Celebrating Civility
Posted at U-T San Diego, March 21, 2015

Excerpts from Celebrating Civility Awards high-school essay contest finalists.

I see civility as respect for others and their opinions, acknowledging differences in each other and valuing them for the diversity that they bring, not the divisions they can create. To me, open-mindedness is a key part of civility, because politeness is not polite when only applied to the people who agree with you most. True respect is shown when you can give weight and value to a different perspective.

I think that my generation is better at this than any that came before us. We are more open-minded and accepting than our parents and grandparents. We see the divisions of race and gender and religion less starkly than those that came before us.

What We Can Learn From Patrick Henry’s ‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death’ Speech
Posted by Carson Holloway at The Daily Signal, March 23, 2015

First, the speech reminds us of the importance of both civility and candor to a healthy politics. Perhaps surprisingly in view of its impassioned ending, the speech begins by noting the importance of civility. Henry opens his remarks by acknowledging the “patriotism, as well as the abilities” of those who spoke on the other side of the issue. He disclaims any intention to be “disrespectful” to them.

Nevertheless, the speech also points to the need for a candid civility. The stakes in play—freedom or slavery—require each citizen to speak his mind forthrightly. Only on the basis of such open debate, after all, can we “hope to arrive at truth, and fulfill the great responsibility we hold to God and our country.” Civility means not seeking to give offense. It does not mean avoiding hard truths because they may offend others.

Sarcasm in Politics? Whatever.
Posted by J. Patrick Coolican at StarTribune.com, March 28, 2015

Now come the civility finger-waggers. The news release says a team of policy fellows from the Humphrey School is launching “Keep It Civil MN.” …

The fever swamps of the Internet have certainly produced a vile stream of noxious rhetoric catalyzed by what’s been termed the “online disinhibition effect,” though the simple solution is to look away from the digital morass.

Because the stakes of the political process are often great — the role of government, war and peace, the rights of the individual vs. the state — these democratic debates arouse passion and sometimes even rancor. It has always been thus.

Lessons on Civility, Israeli Elections and President Obama from a Bad Food Experience
Posted by Arnold D. Samlan at The Times of Israel, March 29, 2015

And there you have it. Hakarat Hatov, the incredibly Jewish value of recognizing when another human being has done something good for you. And kavod, honoring the image of God, wherever you find it. And I apologize to you, my new friend. Because even though your opinions and mine do not align, you have taught me an object lesson in kavod haberiot, respect for God’s creatures. And you reminded me that, even though our opinions might be different, I should never believe for a moment that I don’t have something to learn from you. Because now that I have learned from you, you are my teacher and therefore are always to be treated with respect.

Tommy and Me and the Mending Wall

C. John Grom is a retired executive recruiter whose passion for effective government led him to found of “Right and Left Inc.”, a 501(C)(3) nonprofit corporation committed to the promotion of political civility. He is the Producer and Moderator of an award winning local television talk show “The Right and Left Discussion Forum” which is available on the Internet at www.my.pegcentral.com, and a frequent guest contributor to the editorial page of his local newspaper. In addition he manages www.civilitymatters.org, a web site and blog promoting political civility. Mr. Grom holds a BSBA degree from the University of Akron.

Dewey_Defeats_Truman

In 1948 Tommy and I were nine years old and we got into a fight by the bike rack behind our school. He liked Truman and I liked Dewey. I don’t know why I liked Dewey or why Tommy liked Truman, the way they looked I suppose. Why does any nine year old decide who they would like to see elected President of the United States? All I remember is that it mattered enough at the moment for Tommy and me to duke it out.

The election was a few weeks away and we were both aware of the adult conversations that took place around us. I was a Dewey fan much like I was a fan of the Cleveland Indians who had just won the World Series for the first time in twenty eight years. Anything positive that was said by adults about Dewey or the Indians I took for gospel and repeated it with my own embellishments. By the same token I would reject out of hand anything positive about Truman or negative about Dewey or the Indians.

Tommy felt the same way, only opposite, so we argued. We insulted each other and we called each other names and actually came to blows that one time. But we were only nine years old. Neither one of us knew much about either candidate or the issues of the day but it didn’t matter we had each picked our side and we believed anything that supported it and we built a wall between us.

Our wall was something like Robert Frost’s Mending Wall in his great poem of the same name. Frost describes how he and his neighbor would meet every spring to repair the winter damaged wall that divided their property. On a day we meet to walk the line and set the wall between us as we go. To each the boulders that have fallen to each…. We wear our fingers rough with handling them. Oh, just another kind of outdoor game, one on a side. It comes to little more: There it is we do not need a wall: He is all pine and I am apple orchard. Frost goes on,

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense.

Tommy and I did not ask to whom we were likely to give offense; offense was the centerpiece of our relationship. We were not trying to convert each other, we were trying in every way possible to demean and diminish each other with our words and gestures. We didn’t listen, we didn’t question, we didn’t care we just wanted to strike out. Our reward, if there was one, was the belief that we had launched the most damaging insult before the bell rang ending recess. But, we were only nine years old and that’s the way nine-year-olds behave.

I have friends on social media sites who remind me a great deal of the nine-year-old Tommy and me. The insults and name calling hurled across the political wall have no apparent purpose other than to give offense and no apparent result other than to harden people against each other. They often link their page to ultra partisan websites that appear to exist only to provide their site visitors with reinforcing material for their prejudices or additional insults to hurl over the wall.

There is a good reason we are not allowed to vote when we are nine years old. At that age we still have a lot to learn about cooperation, collaboration, reconciliation, consensus building, compromise, listening to each other, caring about each others’ needs and make our contribution to a society that provides possibilities for all of us to live happy, healthy and productive lives.

When we are nine years old we have not yet learned to ask ourselves before we build a wall, what am I walling in or walling out and to whom I was likely to give offense. We know as mature adults that good fences do not necessarily make good neighbors. Sometimes we have to tear down the wall to see that we really have a lot in common with each other, that without the wall we can do things together that no one group of us could possibly do alone.

Civility Linkblogging: Traffic, Facebook, and More on Tom Schweich

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 edition of civility linkblogging is somewhat eclectic. It includes a follow-up to last week’s post about the suicide of Missouri state auditor Tom Schweich. But it also includes an article about parenting that reflects on how to teach children about dealing with incivility. It includes some advice about Facebook. And it includes a reflection on the relative success of civility and community-mindedness in San Diego, California.

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:

Practicing Civility in an Uncivil World
Posted by Elisabeth Fairfield Stokes at The Washington Post, February 25, 2015

I have always made an effort to put things in context for my children, when they have been sad about mean behavior on the playground or as they start to become aware of larger truths about suffering in the world, but I had not been doing that for myself, I realized, not really. I was protecting myself with anger, too.

I now turn and look at people when they’re rude to me, not afraid, I hope, to show them that they’ve hurt me just a little, and let them see that hurt, not the anger and ugliness that we so often put up in front of our pain. Maybe their pain will see mine, and we’ll recognize something in each other that reminds us that being a little kinder is the only rule we ever need to know.

Three Ways for Facebook Users to Handle Offensive or Abusive Content
Posted by Amina Elahi at The Chicago Tribune, March 3, 2015

Facebook policy prohibits harmful or hateful speech, including that which glorifies violence or threatens others, [Monika] Bickert said. She said the company relies on community members to report abuse, which staffers review and deal with accordingly.

“We want to give people a variety of weapons,” Bickert said.

She outlined the different ways Facebook users can handle offensive or abusive content.

Civility: An Impressive Regional Achievement
Posted by Malin Burnham and Steven P. Dinkin at U-T San Diego, March 5, 2015

San Diego has been blessed with a regional trait that makes those advantages possible: We share a belief in the power of “community before self” and we know how to cooperate in pursuing common goals and building a stronger society.

Over time, our regional culture of collaboration has been tested by a series of political and economic challenges here at home and on the national stage, and it has proven resilient at every turn. We think it’s important to keep that in mind as we prepare for a new election season and confront the complex issues impacting our community.

After Tom Schweich’s Suicide, Kansas City Council Urges Political Civility
Posted by Lynn Horsley at The Kansas City Star, March 5, 2015

In the wake of Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich’s suicide, the Kansas City Council on Thursday adopted a resolution urging civility in politics and in the coming council elections.

Councilman Ed Ford was the lead sponsor of the resolution, which got unanimous council support. He said it was prompted in part by Schweich’s untimely death in the midst of an apparently vicious whisper campaign about his candidacy for governor.

“The eloquent words of (former) Sen. (John) Danforth at his funeral put a lot of things in perspective,” Ford told his colleagues.

The resolution cites Danforth’s eulogy at Schweich’s funeral, in which he said, “Words do hurt. Words can kill.”

Civility in American Life isn’t Dead, But it’s in Decline
Posted at Lehigh Valley Live, March 8, 2015

Let’s be clear: Civility isn’t the fuel of democracy, it’s the primary lubricant. You can conduct business at full throat and invective; it just doesn’t work very well, and the gene pool for good, interactive government shrinks. It confirms the growing sense in American politics that common ground is unobtainable, even undesirable. It’s for wimps, and no one ever accomplished anything through reason.

You can go online and see what good-public-manners advocates say about civility. A public relations firm, Weber Shandwick, tracks people’s opinions on this. It comes as no surprise that a large majority of Americans says we’re getting more ornery every year. Yet to do anything about it risks the likelihood of being shouted down.

It’s like we’re feasting on our ability to listen.

Lessons in Civility from Tom Schweich’s Suicide

Lessons in Civility from Tom Schweich's SuicideWe so often couch civility as an exercise in niceness or courtesy, as a strategy for lubricating the jammed gears and wheels of government, or as a matter of lofty ideals — of acknowledging our common humanity, regardless of differences in our most deeply held beliefs. And all of that is important. But as we contemplate the our practice of civility, we should also consider that sometimes the consequences of abandoning civil discourse are more fundamental than any of that: it’s a matter of life and death.

The February 26 suicide of Missouri state auditor Tom Schweich should be proof enough of that.

Schweich — successful Republican politician in Missouri, recently re-elected auditor, and upcoming gubernatorial candidate — fatally shot himself in what, according to Fox News, police described as an “apparent suicide,” minutes after inviting reporters to his suburban St. Louis home for an interview.

According to Fox, Schweich had had a phone conversation with The Associated Press about his plans to go public that afternoon with allegations that the head of the Missouri Republican Party had made anti-Semitic comments about him.

As Mother Jones reports, Schweich was in fact Episcopalian, not Jewish. But he perceived that the head of the Missouri Republican Party, John Hancock, was conducting a “whisper campaign” against him by telling people that he was Jewish.

After Schweich’s death, Hancock denied this, saying: It’s plausible that I would have told somebody that Tom was Jewish because I thought he was, but I wouldn’t have said it in a derogatory or demeaning fashion.

But as Mother Jones suggests, Missouri is a state where anti-Semitism is already a political force. It is the state, says St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor Tony Messenger, that gave us Frazier Glenn Miller, the raging racist who killed three people at a Jewish community center in Kansas City. And it is a state where the division over race and creed is real in Missouri Republican politics, particularly in some rural areas.

In his eulogy for Tom Schweich, former Republican senator John C. Danforth got to the core of the auditor’s last days. And that core, Danforth tells us, is all about civility:

We often hear that words can’t hurt you. But that’s simply not true. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said just the opposite. Words for Jesus could be the moral equivalent of murder. He said if we insult a brother or sister we will be liable. He said if we call someone a fool we will be liable to hell. Well how about anti-Semitic whispers? And how about a radio ad that calls someone a “little bug,” and that is run anonymously over and over again?

Words do hurt. Words can kill. That has been proven right here in our home state.

We at the Institute couldn’t agree more. Words matter. The words with which we claim our needs are the difference between opening up a productive discussion and inciting anger and resentment. They are the difference between couching our disagreements as partnership or enmity. And in this case, they are the difference between a political disagreement and a devastating personal attack.

In this late stage of things, as Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post reminds us, it is disturbing that anybody thinks that voters can be won over with anti-Semitic bias. It is even more disturbing that, regardless of fringe anti-semitism, someone might be so upset at the accusation of being Jewish that they would take their own life.

But regardless: that seems to be the core of what happened. And the fact of it should illustrate with devastating acuteness the moral boundaries of adversarial politics and the degree to which we must be cognizant of the needs of others in the way we choose our words. As Parker writes:

Politics have always been a blood sport, a fact that some find worthy of boasting. But as we consider that America has lost a good man who was aspirational in his politics and inspirational in his private life, we face a question with an implicitly foreboding answer: Why would any decent person want to run for public office?

Her question is troubling. And it is vital. But it is almost beside the point. The better questions in this case might be: how did we get to a politics so rife with ad hominem attacks that even the most seasoned of up and coming politicians could not withstand its searing vitriol? And what can we do to fix it?

Institute Featured in Estes Park Trail-Gazette

Institute Featured in Estes Park Trail-Gazette

Estes Park, Colorado. Painted by Albert Bierstadt. 1877

The Institute, its founders, and its definition of civility were all featured last week in the Estes Park Trail-Gazette, a weekly newspaper out of Estes Park, Colorado. In an opinion piece titled “Civility Matters. Civility Works,” town administrator Frank Lancaster frames the question of civility in terms of sport. Why, he asks, do we tolerate unsportsmanlike conduct in public discourse when we would never tolerate it on the field? Can you imagine if we had the ability to throw a flag for “unsportsmanlike conduct” in a public meeting or anonymous social media posts?

Lancaster, who became the Estes Park town administrator in May of 2012, writes that in his experience in local government, expressing your ideas and opinions in a civil manner is much more effective than ranting, raving and bullying. And by civil manner, he says, he explicitly means the formulation of civility put forth by Institute co-founders Cassandra Dahnke and Tomas Spath: claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.

He goes on to talk extensively about what, in practical terms, this means for how one should conduct one’s self in civic matters. He tells us, for example, to avoid ad hominem attacks: personal attacks can degrade the discussion to an “us versus them” scenario where we can lose sight of the objective. Don’t swear, he says. It is incendiary — not thought provoking. And avoid relying on stereotypes because not only is it insulting, it is counterproductive. Because no group of people all hold identical ideas and beliefs about anything, stereotyping can create a filter that interferes with our judgment in a negative way.

In all, Frank Lancaster offers nine suggestions for creating a more civil public discourse.

His purpose, he says, is to offer a gentle reminder in a time of strife. The town of Estes Park has had some fairly contentious issues to discuss as a community lately. They have, thus far, discussed these issues with civility and respect. But we can always be more effective in our public discussions, Lancaster says. And in that spirit, it behooves us to remember that courtesy and productivity are not mutually exclusive virtues.

If you want to know more about Frank Lancaster and civility in Estes Park, Colorado, click here.

Institute Co-Founders will appear on Coffee Party Internet Radio Show, Tuesday

Reclaiming-Civility-Cover-(Large)Institute co-founders Cassandra Dahnke and Tomas Spath will appear on Coffee Party USA‘s Internet Radio channel on Tuesday night to talk about the Institute’s book, Reclaiming Civility in the Public Square – 10 Rules That Work, and take live questions. The show is hosted through BlogTalkRadio.com, and is part of the February iteration of the Coffee Party’s monthly book club.

Listeners to the program will be able to call in directly to speak with the show’s hosts, or chat live through the BlogTalkRadio website.

Coffee Party USA is an organization that holds many values in common with the Institute. They are a non-partisan, grassroots organization with the goals of promoting cultural changes to address political disengagement and ideological polarization, and encouraging inclusive, civil, fact-based, solution-oriented dialogue about pressing policy issues.

If you want to listen, you can tune in here at 8:30pm EST on Tuesday, February 24. The phone number to call to ask a question is (646) 929-2495. Or you can ask questions online through the same page. But you must register for a free BlogTalkRadio account, first.

Update:  In case you missed Coffee Party USA’s chat about Reclaiming Civility in the Public Square, you can catch the whole thing here.  Tune it.  It’s interesting stuff.

Civility Linkblogging: Education, Religious Expression, and Free Speech

Civility Linkblogging

A Lynx, because Linkblogging

Welcome back to civility linkblogging. In this recurring segment here at the Civility blog, we highlight discourse in print and around the web that engages with notions of civility, either by expounding on some aspect of it we might not otherwise think about, or by showing us civility — or lack thereof — in action.

This week’s links come at the nexus of what we here in the United States think of as the First Amendment. The majority of our articles this week are about religion, free speech, and civility. We have one that offers some guidance on the limits of free speech in an educational context; another that points toward a balance between religion, politics, and civility; and a third about policing civility in one of the world’s largest collaborative scholarly projects — the Wikipedia.

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:

The Humanities Can Help Us Rekindle Notions of the Common Good
Posted by Bernard L. Kavaler at The CT Mirror, January 20, 2015

Nearly half of millennials – significantly more than any other generation – now accept the notion that incivility is part of the American political process. But in a recent poll by Weber Shandwick, nearly one in four millennials believe civility will improve over the next few years, two to four times the percentage of other generations. While 56 percent of millennials say the Internet and social media are making civility worse, they remain optimistic.

Given the dizzying changes and challenges that demand our response, common ground and the common good are too often viewed — to our collective detriment — as unwelcome capitulation, unbridled naiveté, or utterly unattainable.

Civility and Free Speech in Education
Posted by David Moshman at The Huffington Post, January 21, 2015

What to do? Nothing in any Supreme Court decision requires censorship. Far from promoting civility, censorship is itself uncivil. Teachers can and should promote civil discussion without censoring or punishing uncivil speech. They can be models of civility, can urge and remind students to respect each other, can engage students in serious argumentation, and can evaluate the quality of their arguments. None of this requires censorship.

Sometimes there will be controversy about what gets said and sometimes there will be efforts to prevent or punish uncivil ideas or modes of expression. We should not assume that if academic freedom is threatened the First Amendment will come to its rescue. Rather than rely on wishful thinking about constitutional law, educators at all levels must clarify and explain the academic basis for academic freedom and promote policies that protect that freedom for all.

Civility Is a Currency We Must Value
Posted by Martin Flanagan at The Age, January 24, 2015

Culturally and politically, I belong to the West. I happen to believe in parliamentary democracy… That people can routinely commit appalling deeds while claiming to be acting in the name of religion is precisely why I do not wish to live in a religious state. I want my daughters and granddaughters to have access to the social rights and liberties that have been hard-won by women in Western societies. I believe in a secular democratic society and intend to do my bit defending it.

What I am arguing for is civility. To quote a diplomat’s wife from the 18th century, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, “Civility costs nothing, and buys everything.” As for Ali Faraj, he and I’ll keep talking. About what? About everything. At the moment, he’s badgering me to take him for a trip around Tasmania. He knows I’m from down there and wants to see the place. Ali loves Australia.

Incivility Is on the Rise. Five Ways to Avoid Being Part of the Problem
Posted by Michelle Powell at AL.com, January 26, 2015

Millennials reportedly experience bad behavior on a daily basis. And admittedly, they are themselves the culprits four in 10 times, yet Millennials are the very generation with the most hope that things will get better.

The 2014 report shows 23 percent optimism for improved civility in future America as compared to no more than 11 percent from the other generations.

So what does all of this mean for business? According to the study, an uncivil work environment has caused 27 percent of millennials to quit a job. And because of poor treatment by a company representative nearly half (49 percent) have either stopped patronizing a company or told others not to support that business.

Civility, Wikipedia, and the Conversation on Gamergate
Posted by Philippe Beaudette at the Wikimedia Blog, January 27, 2015

Civility is an important concept for Wikipedia: it is what allows people to collaborate and disagree constructively even on difficult topics. It ensures people are able to focus their energy on what really matters: building a collaborative free encyclopedia for the world.

A group of trusted, long-term volunteer English Wikipedia editors (known as the Arbitration Committee) is now reviewing the conduct of the editors who participated on the Gamergate controversy article discussions. Their mandate is to review editor conduct, and address disruptions so that Wikipedia can remain a civil, productive place for all editors. They may do so through issuing warnings, bans, or other means.

Identity, and the Mechanics of Persuasive Conversations

Civility is obviously very important, but do you ever feel like it’s increasingly tough to find common ground? Do you ever look at those big, divisive issues that have plagued American politics — abortion, the death penalty, immigration, etc. — and think to yourself: if we cannot even agree to disagree, how can we ever get to the point where we can fruitfully make policy?

The idea of a civil politics is premised on negotiation: the notion that if I tell you what I need, and if you tell me what you need, assuming that we’re both acting in good faith, we can — we hope — each get some of what we want without trampling the core values of the person sitting across the table. The idea of a civil politics, in other words, assumes that both parties are rational in their decision-making process, and that they want to move forward.

But most of us know, if we’re really honest with ourselves, that that isn’t the way that a civil negotiation works. We all have beliefs of one sort or another that are not strictly rational. And as David Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts, recently told NPR about vaccinations, fear, or the perception of risk, is subjective. It’s a matter of how we feel about the facts we have, not just what the facts say.

So if our beliefs — and especially our most deeply held beliefs — are in some measure subjective, it does not seem unreasonable that it might take a deeply subjective, possibly irrational form of argument to change our minds.

This premise seems to be confirmed by some new research from political scientists Michael J. LaCour and Donald P. Green of UCLA. In this study that they published in Science in December, 2014, they tell us that contact with people is often as important as contact with ideas if we seek to change minds and hearts — that civil negotiation must be one part polite argument, and one part social interaction.

The idea itself is not exactly new. It is called the contact hypothesis, and it goes back to the 1950s. Social psychologists starting with Gordon W. Allport have asserted that direct personal contact is among the best ways to break down ingrained prejudices — to change people’s minds when their position is not fundamentally rational.

What is new about LeCour and Green’s study is some fine-grained experimental data that tells us that direct engagement with the objects of our prejudices can have a profound impact not just for us in the moment, but for our opinions weeks and months later, and for our friends and families, too.

In the course of their research, LeCour and Green sent canvassers to the homes of 972 voters. Some of those canvassers were gay and some were straight, and each group spoke with the voters about why they should support gay marriage. The result was that five days after the experiment, the gay and straight canvassers each had about the same impact in changing voters’ minds. But that increasingly as time went on, voters who had had a direct interaction with a gay canvasser were considerably more likely to retain a more permissive attitude toward gay marriage. And folks who had secondhand contact with the gay canvasser — friends and family of the voter contacted — were more likely to come around to that point of view as well.

The classical formulation of the contact hypothesis predicts this. It tells us — simply — that the contact has broken down the prejudice. But what’s innovative about Green and LeCour is that their data suggests that contact is most effective when it comes with a rational argument in tow. A group of voters who received a visit from a gay canvasser with a script about why one should recycle (the experiment’s control group) did not, by and large, change their opinion about gay marriage. Or at least not at the same rate.

Green and LeCour’s results, in short, were this: that active contact is capable of producing a cascade of enduring opinion change. That rational discussion of a given issue is important. And that contact with people who have different values is important. But that we are most able to listen beyond our preconceived notions when both of those factors come together.

Returning to civility, we can learn an important lesson from this. That is: when we sit down to speak with people with whom we disagree, we must address them not just as a collection of ideas, but as a complex human being. We must understand that neither our own beliefs nor theirs are completely rational, and that the social interaction itself, not just the the content of the conversation, are invaluable in attaining mutual understanding.

This is clear in the Institute’s expanded definition of civility. It’s about respect as a starting point for dialogue about differences. But this is also a strategic point. If your goal is to change people’s mind about whatever kind of big, divisive political issue, civility is not just window dressing. It is essential to the process.