The (In)Civility of Some Arizona Churches

This is a curious story about civility – or the lack thereof – among the faithful. Apparently, in Fountain Hills, Arizona, eight area churches are collaborating this May on a campaign that they call “Progressive” Christianity: Fact or Fiction, which targets The Fountains United Methodist Church and its pastor, David Felton, who is the author of the bestselling book, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity.

According to the Fox affiliate in Phoenix, The Fountains is the only progressive church in the area. And it is geared, as Pastor Felton says, toward letting people know that there’s a choice out there, they don’t have to deny science, they don’t have to hate their gay neighbor, they don’t have to read and take the bible in a way that causes them to abandon their rational mind.

The pastors of the eight collaborating churches – Rick Ponzo, Don Lawrence, Rod Warembourg, Tony Pierce, Todd Forrest, Bill Good, Steve Bergeson, and Tom Daly – wrote in an op-ed piece in the Fountain Hills Times on May 13 that they will present a series of sermons, the objective of which is to answer three primary questions:

  1. What is the difference between “Progressive” Christianity and Biblical Christianity?
  2. Does that difference really matter in a relativistic age?
  3. How can a Christian decipher what he or she should believe?

In the op-ed, they couch the sermon series as an exercise in promoting ecumenical cooperation and civility:

Unity among churches is a wonderful thing when the truths at stake are greater than the differences between us. By teaming up to stand for the essential truths that we embrace, eight pastors and their churches are making a key statement: Truth matters to us.

But as Daniel Schultz of the USC Annenberg School’s Religion Dispatches blog writes, the whole thing is fundamentally divisive. It airs the enmity between liberal and conservative Christians. It is a further sign of the same increasing polarization along ideological lines that infects American political culture. And the net effect, writes Schultz, is roughly analogous to when campaign ads go negative: the base is kept strong and in line, but the majority of people say “to hell with the both of you, I’m staying home.”

For our purposes, though, what’s even more interesting here is that it’s not just the “Progressive” Christianity: Fact or Fiction campaign itself that betrays this breakdown in civility. Though a group of eight conservative churches teaming up to discredit a lone progressive church has an odor of bullying about it, progressive pastor David Felton’s own words are hardly innocuous. In his response to Fox’s Phoenix affiliate, his characterization of other Christians as irrational science deniers and homophobes is essentializing, and demeaning, and certainly does no justice to the nuance of opinion of the folks who sit across the aisle from him.

What’s going on here seems to be a kind of breakdown of empathy that’s caused by a failure of imagination on both sides.

In his Beyond Vietnam speech, Martin Luther King Jr. said that the meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence is that it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. It helps us to see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and to know that those whom we call the opposition are in fact brothers and sisters in another guise.

And that is what’s missing here. In their public statements, the churches promoting “Progressive” Christianity: Fact or Fiction – and also the church being targeted being targeted by the campaign – seem unable to see themselves from their adversaries’ point of view. Adherence to ideology, and adherence to an essentializing understanding of who the other side is, have left them blind to the weaknesses in their own positions. And so they are able to claim and care for their own needs, but they are unable to do so while respecting the needs of others.

From the outside, this seems like a classic case of extreme measures cutting off lines of communications between parties just when a set of civil conversations is needed the most.

Civility Linkblogging: Balancing Civility and Free Speech

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, on the whole, highlight an important question about civility: how can we balance it with free speech and the free exchange of ideas? In that vein, we have a write-up of a panel discussion at the University of Arizona. We have a response to author Salman Rushdie’s lionization of free speech, even at the cost of civil dialog. And we have some advice: that the best response to free speech that offends us is more speech — not violence.

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:

Panelists Balance Free Speech, Civility
Posted by Terrie Brianna at The Daily Wildcat, April 30, 2015

A friend of Barber’s and member of Kozachik’s Ward, Patterson said that the conversation on freedom of speech and civility is very important.

During the panel, Patterson referred to a bumper sticker he has seen around Tucson that implies a support for guns.

“We have to find ways to help people, who are civil people, find their voice in ways that can be heard and not be uncivil,” Patterson said. “Beyond that, we have to face a culture that promotes violence. We have movies and television … [and] a culture that says the way that we deal with conflict is through violent action.”

Respond to Free Speech You Don’t Like with Civility
Posted by Jennifer Hancock at The Bradenton Herald, May 1, 2015

Assaulting people whose speech upsets us is unacceptable. If we want to live in a civil society, where speaking your mind does not means risking your life, we must start respecting the rights of people who disagree with us. We have to stop enabling bullies who attempt to silence speech with violence. We must insist on civility and stop rationalizing away this violence as somehow justified.

The correct response to speech you don’t like is more speech; not death threats or violence.

‘Pussies and Wimps’: Why Salman Rushdie’s Plea for Free Speech Rings Hollow
Posted by Derek Edyvane at The Conversation, May 6, 2015

Civil self-censorship can help to create a more constructive discussion. It can also help to create a more democratic discussion in which all voices are heard. And to stand up for civility of this kind when everyone else is yelling can actually be quite a courageous thing to do.

That being said, there are certainly some valid free speech concerns about the appeal to civility. Throughout history, powerful elites have used particular understandings of what counts as civil or polite and uncivil or impolite behaviour as a way of stifling the speech of disadvantaged groups.

What Eye Contact — And Dogs — Can Teach Us About Civility In Politics
Posted by Alisa Chang at NPR.org, May 8, 2015

There’s a common perception that looking a dog in the eye can make it uncomfortable. That would certainly bolster the Minnesota theory. But dog behavioral expert Clive Wynne at Arizona State University’s Canine Science Collaboratory said it’s more complicated than that.

“A dog that’s wagging its tail happily while it looks another dog in the eye is maybe communicating something friendly,” he said, “whereas a dog that growls and has its hackles raised in a very tense body posture — the eye contact may just intensify that threat.”

In other words, eye contact for dogs is like eye contact for humans. When there’s genuine goodwill, eye contact can be a positive thing.

Constructive Listening Can Build Civility in Politics
Posted by Robert Lillegard at The Duluth News Tribune, May 9, 2015

I had the most unusual conversation about politics the other day…. Really, the strangest thing about the conversation was what it was missing.

Polarization.

It actually dawned on me partway through the talk. We’d disagreed on everything from the recent looting episodes to the justice system, but insults hadn’t come up. We hadn’t questioned each other’s motives or called each other names. We hadn’t accused each other of ruining America. Everything was perfectly … civil.

Civility and the Recent Nigerian Election

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

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

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

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

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

Nigeria

Nigeria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senator Susan Collins delivers the Margaret Chase Smith Public Affairs Lecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.