Civility Blog

Houston’s Furr High School Wins $10 Million XQ Grant

Does civility matter? Yes it does.

In 2001, Dr. Bertie Simmons came out of retirement to become the principal of Houston’s Furr High school when no one else wanted to take the reigns. Six years later, concerned that gangs were ready to take over the school, Simmons called on us at the Institute and asked if we would take some of her students to Washington D.C. It might help, she thought, for them to learn about politics, and citizenship, and investment in public service.

We did, and we became one part of a series of events that changed students’ lives. In 2001, the school was dangerous. In 2007, it was only beginning to turn around. When we first walked into Furr High School, we were greeted with a physical altercation between a teacher and a student – with shoving, and yelling in the halls.

Today, walking down those same halls, the change is palpable. The students know that we are the folks who take groups to Washington D.C. But we aren’t the only ones who are treated with respect. Respect is the rule rather than the exception. And respect has led Furr High School to win a major award.

So what happened? Civility did.

Civility has been a theme threaded through Furr’s curriculum for years now. From their teachers in their classes, and every time we take a group to Washington D.C., students learn to claim their needs and listen past difference, to build consensus and even to speak with their elected representatives. Civility has become such a watchword at Furr that students now plan an annual “Civility in the Part” celebration at Herman Brown Park Pavilion.

You need only look at this short video to see what a dramatic effect civility has had on Furr High School.

The change is nothing if not a cause to celebrate building civility one person at a time, one community at a time, and one nation at a time. And with all our hearts, we would like to congratulate the students and teachers at Furr High School on winning the XQ: The Super School Project grant, which will bring $10 million over the next five years to reinvent what a high school can do.

Civility Linkblogging: Pushing on the Limits of Civility

Civility LinkbloggingCivility Linkblogging is 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 installment offers two compelling arguments that the governing force behind our discourse need not be civility, and one discussion of why it absolutely must be. In The Des Moines Register and in Commentary Magazine, we are reminded that other values like free speech and conviction must always be weighed as well. While in The Irish Times, we are reminded that even in those circumstances we must recall that those who hold beliefs that are different from our own usually do so honestly and without malice.

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 Include the title, url, and a short summary, and we will gladly review it for publication.

Civility in Government
Posted by David Rosenof at, April 28, 2016

The foundation for this model starts in our schools, where students should be required to take civics to prepare them to become knowledgeable and engaged citizens. Civics classes, however, have been pushed aside over recent years, and the result is that less and less students even know the three branches of government. If we are going to achieve our desired civility in government, our young people must learn American history, know how our political system works, understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens and the importance of community engagement.

Along with teaching how our government functions is the obligation of educators to instill autonomous critical thinking and debate skills. In order to become responsible citizens, our young people must become adept at using debate skills as a tool to communicate.

On Campus, Civility and First Amendment in Conflict
Posted at The Des Moines Register, May 2, 2016

Enough bad feelings had come to a head that some 200 people felt a need to gather at the University of Northern Iowa on a November night to talk. The topic was diversity.

The catalyst was the kind of language students were hearing around campus.

Encounters like that on campuses across the country are prompting an examination of whether limits on speech and expression should exist at a college or university.

It’s a controversial topic, raising this sticky question: If limits should exist, where should they be placed?

Leaders Laugh but Should also Fight
Posted by Jonathan S. Tobin at Commentary Magazine, May 3, 2016

There is, of course, nothing wrong with Boehner being a good sport and playing a role in Obama’s video. But in recent years the complaint that Obama and Boehner should have learned from the example of President Ronald Reagan and his generally friendly adversary House Speaker Tip O’Neill is a bit misleading.

It’s true that the ability of the pair to relax and share a joke and a drink didn’t harm their working relationship. But if deals were made during that administration it wasn’t primarily because the two knew how to be civil. It was because both were able to agree on legislation that they viewed as in the common interest.

Coping: How to Argue with Civility, the Thomas Jefferson Way
Posted by Laura Kennedy at The Irish Times, May 11, 2016

We all encounter this: people associating their own view with being moral or good, and an opposing one as inherently bad or damaging. To point this out in conversation is a way of shutting down discourse; to suggest that a perspective is in itself bad without querying the reasons behind it is to refuse the opportunity to test your own view, or to learn whether and why you are wrong.

If a person holds a view that I don’t agree with, even one that could limit my freedom, such as the view that abortion is never acceptable, it isn’t because they have bad intentions or are some sort of degenerate. They have come to a different conclusion on the issue. Only through rational discourse can we hope to have a thorough debate.

Former Social Secretaries from Bush, Obama Administrations Writing Book on Civility
Posted by Emily Heil at The Washington Post, May 11, 2016

“The White House is of course a very political environment,” Berman says. “But everyone, no matter what, does their best work when they come from a place of mutual respect, and that might be getting lost in American culture.”

At first the pair considered writing a straightforward entertaining guide, but they soon realized that that is a crowded market — and that deeper issues were at play. The first-time authors describe the project not as a guide to proper pinkie placement, but rather a how-to on human interactions peppered with anecdotes — both positive examples and cautionary tales — from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “People are so interested in the White House,” Bernard says. “And everything is magnified there … but the issues are applicable wherever you are, from Walmart to a law firm.”

Civility Linkblogging: Tom Ridge, Rick Scott, and Convicted Civility

Civility LinkbloggingCivility Linkblogging is 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 installment is largely eclectic. It features former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge’s thoughts on Vice-President Joe Biden and Senator John McCain, and Pepperdine University President Andrew Benton’s considerations of convicted civility. It also features an important insight on civility and power: Nadine Smith, writing about an incident in which Florida Governor Rick Scott was yelled at in a coffee shop, tells us that civility should never be an instrument used to silence disagreement or constrain the disempowered.

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 Include the title, url, and a short summary, and we will gladly review it for publication.

Now — the list:

When Civility Really Means Silence
Posted by Nadine Smith at The Huffington Post, April 7, 2016

I lament that we live in a world that exalts entrenched opinion over reason and facts, that rewards bullying over empathy. So I understand the discomfort expressed by a few of my friends who see her outburst as further evidence that the last threads holding our democracy together are being pulled apart from the left and the right.

But that analysis avoids any discussion of who holds power. These are not equal sides in a debate. The governor’s agenda has been uncivil and profane. His actions have cost lives.

Former Gov. Tom Ridge: Civility in Politics Matters More Than Ever
Posted by Tom Ridge at, April 8, 2016

While it is easy to lament incivility, I prefer the approach taken by Allegheny College, who this week named Biden and McCain the winners of its annual Prize for Civility in Public Life. I’m proud to be an honorary degree recipient from Allegheny and applaud college President Jim Mullen’s selection.

Ask anyone who has sat across a table from Biden or McCain, and they’ll tell you the same thing—that these are men of principle who hold strong to their beliefs and will argue passionately in defense of their positions. But they also understand that one need not demonize their opposition in order to effectively govern. Their remarkable careers speak to their ability to work collegially and effectively on both sides of the aisle and to rebuke the notion that Republicans and Democrats can’t get things done together.

A Little Civility, Please
Posted by Marianne Heimes at Savannah Now, April 11, 2016

I love my children, grandchildren, and great grandson. My hope is that they will live in a safe world, safe to walk down any street, safe to sit on their front porch at any time, safe to drive Highway 80 to the beach, safe to walk through Forsyth Park if they wish and free to vote for the candidate of their choice and know their vote counted.

Those are just a few of the many things I wish for them — and for you as well. …

My faith tells me we are going to be all right when all is said and done. I just hope that what is said and done in the future will be more civil. And if you wonder what exactly civil means, Webster describes it as politeness. Pretty simple when you think about it. Let’s all try it.

The Road to Restoring Civility
Posted by Shelby Taylor at, April 12, 2016

Today’s university students will be called upon to solve some of society’s most critical issues. Whether it is through expert speakers, timely research, service learning opportunities or internships, our center provides critical programming that can help lay the groundwork for a more civil and open-minded approach to politics and policy.

The road to recovery starts with educating the next generation that indignation and insults have no place in public discourse and that we must respect and appreciate the opinions and the humanity of others.

Embrace Convicted Civility
Posted by Andrew K. Benton at The Pepperdine University Graphic, April 22, 2016

I ran across a phrase recently that I like very much: convicted civility. As soon as I saw those two words together I knew immediately and exactly what they meant. I admire strong convictions presented fairly and without elements of ad hominem attack in pursuit of truth and, even, fairness and justice. Lutheran scholar Martin Marty once said, “People these days who are civil often lack strong convictions, and people with strong religious convictions often are not very civil. What we need is convicted civility.” The time has come for convicted civility in all things.

I have held these personal thoughts for the past few weeks, uncertain if they would add much to any conversation. While I cannot precisely define the phrase convicted civility, I know what it means to me. It means that we can hear and process words with which we do not agree and that we can be unafraid to refute them with truth, courage and confidence. It means that as we encounter new thinking and information, that we are free to ask hard questions and to pursue answers to questions important to us. Questions should not be threatening, and answers should not be unassailable when given. Steel sharpens steel in the dialectic of learning and living.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and David Brooks on the Dangers of Single Storyism

New York Times columnist David Brooks offered his readers a gift, recently, when he pointed out a 2009 TED Talk by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “The Danger of a Single Story.” In that talk, Adichie discusses globalization, colonialism, and the mutual cross-cultural misperceptions brought about – as Brooks puts it – by what happens when complex human beings and situations are reduced to a single narrative.



For Adichie, the story of this form of tunnel vision is personal. She talks about the effects in her own life of growing up reading only books in which characters were foreign, and her youthful perception that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify. She talks about discovering African literature only later, and the way in which it saved her from having a single story of what books are.

She talks, too, about coming to college in the United States and finding herself on the receiving end of the single-story problem: a roommate who felt sorry for me even before she saw me because she had only a single story of Africa – catastrophe; and the power of a narrative that left no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.

The stories Adichie tells us are personal, but the problem, she says, is political. Single stories about peoples or places are tools by which those with power control how we understand and interact with those without:

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.

In other words, how we frame stories – what parts we choose to tell and which we omit – is an exercise in turning complexity into simplicity. And that simplicity, often as not, comes at somebody else’s expense.

David Brooks rightly connects this idea, which he calls single storyism, to the current state of American politics. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are the giants of single storyism, he tells us, reducing the complexities of the American political landscape to simple narratives: the perils of the other in the case of Trump, and the tyranny of the banks for Sanders.

Both candidates, says Brooks, have gained in power by erasing those narrative threads that are messy or that don’t easily fit. And both are part of a larger political problem that’s connected to civility: that partisanship limits our ability to understand how multiple narratives about issues from the minimum wage to police brutality may simultaneously be true.

But while Brooks starts us down the right road with his use of Adichie’s TED talk, he doesn’t quite get to the larger point. Adichie tells us:

It is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

The value of multiple narratives – about a group, from members of a group, from multiple members – is that the stories begin to form a web, offer us three-dimensionality, and tell us not just who people are and what they do, but that they are not easily reducible to a single, simple essence.

This is dignity in a nutshell. And it is also the core of civility.

Civility asks us to take others seriously – to see our neighbors not as props in the drama of our lives, but as fully realized individuals with identities, needs, and beliefs that must be accommodated, even as we would like to see our own identities, needs and beliefs accommodated.

When David Brooks offers an indictment of the single storyism of only being able to see a policy issue from one point of view, part of the problem he is identifying is practical. How can we balance competing goods, whether they are the needs of labor and management, or the needs of communities and law enforcement?

But that in itself is a kind of single storyism. Our policy positions and political opinions only represent part of the many narratives that encompass each of us as individuals, and each of our groups. And while the immediate concern may rightly be about making laws, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk shows us that civility is about something else: the question of how we can break through simplicity and embrace complexity as a tool that allows us to productively and peacefully coexist.

Point Taken from PBS Offers Debate with a Side of Civility

Point Taken logo, copyright by owner.Television reviews are not usually within our purview. But this month, happily, something interesting is happening in public broadcasting that invites some civility discussion. PBS, together with Boston’s WGBH, have premiered a new show called Point Taken that’s a version of a panel debate. But far from the Crossfires of the world, this debate isn’t about scoring partisan points. The show bills itself as an exploration of all sides of a key issue; and it emphasizes good listening, the determination of fact, and (perhaps most encouragingly) the search for merit in opposing arguments.

Point Taken is hosted by Carlos Watson: journalist, media entrepreneur, and founder of Each episode features a panel of four journalists and experts – two on the ‘pro’ side of a given issue, and two on the ‘con.’ The first episode, for example, had journalists Matt Welch and Isabel Wilkerson defending the position that the American Dream is alive and well. While columnist Tom Shattuck and financial expert Monica Metha argued that its expiration date has come and gone.

But the show adds some new features to the old back and forth. Watson and company survey their studio audience at the beginning and end of each debate to determine what they think about the issue at hand, and how many minds have been changed because of what they’ve heard. And Point Taken has partnered with the Marist Institute for Public Opinion to provide broader polling data that frames the debate in each episode.

In the most recent episode, which was on the subject of refugees, Marist polled on two questions: whether the United States should accept more or fewer refugees, and whether the United States has a moral obligation to accept refugees. Both questions became topics that the panel discussed. And the seemingly conflicting response – the fact that a majority thought that America does have a moral obligation, but that it still should accept fewer refugees – became a topic of discussion, too.

The show also takes a break from the debate in the middle to do what it calls fact checking. In the episode about refugees, for instance, Watson asked the panel how many refugees the United States accepted in 2015; and he asked them which countries accept the most refugees by percentage of their population. The segment runs something like a miniature trivia contest, and Watson even joked that it should feature the Jeopardy music in the background. But it serves two important functions: it shows off panel members’ level of expertise (and therefore helps audiences gauge their credibility); and it makes sure that audiences understand at least the basic facts of the topic at hand.

The level of respect is one of the show’s more exciting features. Panelists seem to come from all sides of the political spectrum, and they are drawn from a pool that is purposefully diverse both in professional and demographic make-up. And yet, though each of the participants certainly seems passionate about his or her point of view, that passion never translates into raised voices. It never translates into ad hominem attacks, or mocking, or patronizing responses, or even a shift onto obvious talking points. Instead, panelists’ answers are calm and detailed. And they respond to the substance of the question, or directly to what their colleagues have said.

Panelists do sometimes try to talk over each other. In both the episode about refugees and the one about the American Dream, as the show’s half hour wound down all sides seemed to want to get in one last point. But Carlos Watson’s strength as a moderator is keeping the peace; and he skillfully deescalated burgeoning tensions with a mixture of well-placed interjections and strategic changes in topic.

Even more encouraging than its tone, however, is the show’s ending. Point Taken takes its name from each episode’s final move, where panelists on one side of an issue must explicitly address the fact that there’s something to the other side’s argument. In the American Dream debate, for example, Tom Shattuck, who had been arguing that the Dream is dead, acknowledges that the debate has caused him to think about minorities’ relationship with the concept, especially given that for many prosperity has been long in coming, and some are only just starting to see it now. And Isabel Wilkerson, speaking for the pro-Dream side, similarly acknowledged that many Americans do feel a loss – do feel disheartened – by the perception that their generation is not as prosperous as their parents’.

Because of the respectful tone, and because of this emphasis on finding common ground, the show has seen some positive responses with regards to civility. One representative tweet reads like this:

And blogger Fred Harris, who was in the audience for the filming of the first episode, echoes that sentiment, writing that the best part of the experience was “good dialogue, among four bright in-touch people who know better than to shout over one another.”

Is Point Taken perfect? No. Debate is a necessary feature of our democracy, but it is also, by its nature, more adversarial than collaborative. The show tries to sand down some of the format’s rougher edges through good moderation and through its unique approach to closing statements. But there are other formats, like the dialogue approach that the Institute applies in its own Congressional Student Forums, that might better serve the purpose of lifting up public discourse.

Yet that said, Point Taken does a lot of things right. It’s informative; it promotes civic engagement through citizen education; and perhaps above all, it models the idea that we can have extensive disagreements about important issues and not only come away amicably, but come away with the idea that though we may not agree with the other side, they have good reasons for believing the way they do. And with so much television out there that seems to prefer the self-serving, the partisan, and the polarizing, all of this makes Point Taken something of a breath of fresh air.

If you’re interested in watching Point Taken, you can find full episodes here.

Civility in Nebraska’s Effort to Reform Redistricting

Because the national press hasn’t picked it up, you may not have heard the story. But there’s some very interesting civility news going on right now in the state of Nebraska. On Wednesday, Nebraska’s legislature passed a bill that would reform the state’s redistricting process, taking it largely out of the hands of the legislators themselves and empowering an independent commission. Emily Nohr of describes it this way:

The bill would create an independent commission of citizens to redraw the state’s political maps for six elected bodies: U.S. House, the Legislature, Public Service Commission, University of Nebraska Board of Regents, State Board of Education and Nebraska Supreme Court.

No more than five commission members could be from a single political party.

Don Walton of the Lincoln Star-Journal adds that the process would start with the submission of a series of computer-generated maps to the commission, proposing plans that could achieve relative population equity and meet other goals, such as adherence to county boundaries. The commission would then decide on a course of action and submit it to the legislature for final approval. If a plan is rejected, Walton writes, the commission would reconvene to offer an alternative to the Legislature.

Redistricting Reform in Nebraska
Nebraska’s Congressional Districts, as of the 113th Congress (2013-2015).

This comes in response to a particularly acrimonious redistricting fight in 2011 that resulted in personal disputes and some rancor among senators over their legislative district boundaries – boundaries that were, in particular, seen by many Democrats to unduly benefit the Republican Party in metropolitan Omaha’s 2nd Congressional District.

Not every elected official in Nebraska is pleased with the new bill. At an earlier stage in the process, eleven senators abstained from a vote to move the bill forward. And though Governor Pete Ricketts has not publicly commented on the plan, reports indicate that he has privately expressed some degree of opposition.

That said, contentious as it might be, both the legislative process and the plan for reforming redistricting practices in Nebraska indicate some positive news for civility.

Recently, data has increasingly suggested that redistricting conducted through independent commissions has not, as we might suppose, significantly increased competitiveness for congressional seats. But in the six states where independent commissions have been instituted, what it has done is decrease the frequency and intensity of the sort of legislative battle that precipitated Nebaska’s bill.

It hasn’t entirely done away with acrimony. But according to Peter Miller and Bernard Grofman in the U. C. Irvine Law Review [PDF], states with commissions tend to deliver district maps on time, and largely without legal contestation. And though the process remains marked with controversy, the resulting maps tend not to be altered or overturned during the decade in which they are instituted.

Moreover, the specific process by which Nebraska came to their new plan has been intentionally inclusive on a number of levels. As Don Walton writes, the bill is the product of years of cooperative work and negotiation by Sens. John Murante of Gretna and Heath Mello of Omaha – a Democrat and a Republican respectively. The nine-member independent commission in charge of the redistricting itself can have no more than five members – the barest of majorities – from any one party. And according to an earlier article about the plan, the members of the commission are chosen in equal measure by the state’s three legislative caucuses, which each represent one of the state’s main geographic areas.

Several senators, according to Walton, have raised concerns about possible urban domination of the commission in what is otherwise a highly rural state. Six of the nine commissioners would come from the vicinity of Omaha and Lincoln, the state’s two largest cities.

But no plan could be perfectly representative. And this one bars lobbyists, elected officials, party officials, and their relatives from serving on the commissions, potentially decreases the possibility of other kinds of conflicts of interest.

We here at the Institute do not endorse plans to do redistricting by independent commission – or by any other particular means. We are not a policy organization, and moreover we believe that the method by which states manage electoral districts must be highly specific to their individual circumstances – that each state must decide for itself.

But we are highly encouraged by any legislative move that puts fairness and the needs of voters ahead of the interests of partisanship and legislators’ job security. We are highly encouraged by evidence-based legislation that seems designed to curb acrimony in debates among lawmakers. Our interest is piqued by the bipartisanship that Nebraska legislators have shown here. And should Governor Ricketts sign it into law, we will be watching closely to see how this experiment in redistricting reform turns out.

Civility Linkblogging: Faith Leaders and Civil Politics

Civility LinkbloggingCivility Linkblogging is 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 month brings us a selection of (mostly) religious voices, from all ends of the political spectrum, calling for civility, tolerance, and kindness. This includes a Unitarian Universalist minister drawing a distinction between debate with the goal of better understanding, and debate with the lesser goal of winning. It includes a Mormon commentator examining civility as a trans-religious value that strengthens society. It includes a Methodist minister reflecting on the value of political correctness. And it includes a Baptist asking us to move beyond civility — to embrace kindness as an active strategy against sin.

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 Include the title, url, and a short summary, and we will gladly review it for publication.

Now — the list:

Bring Civility to the Debate Process
Posted by Julia Corbett-Hemeyer at The Star Press, March 5, 2016

There is nothing wrong with candidates throwing themselves passionately into the topic at hand. The situations the United States faces at home and abroad are certainly complicated enough that sincere, reasonable and good-hearted women and men will disagree on the best courses of action. The complexity of the world in which political decisions must be made guarantees that, in addition to good decisions, mistakes will inevitably be made. There will be ample cause to challenge the choices and judgments of one’s predecessors and those on the other side of the political party aisle.

We are not at our best, however, when we are sniping at each other and engaging in personal attacks in the name of debate. We are not at our best when name calling and innuendo cloud our discussion of the issues and of what’s good for the country. We are not at our best when we engage in debate with the goal of “winning” and assuring that our “opponents” are defeated.

Civility is Essential to Strong Societies
Posted by Kristine Frederickson at Desert News, March 6, 2016

The definition itself teaches us the consequences of incivility: When we are uncivil, we become harsh, unmerciful, uncaring, poorly performing citizens who, inevitably, will engage in disorderly behavior. We do not need to look far to see this occurring all around us — road rage, physical altercations, physical attacks, and verbal and physical abuse are evident everywhere.

Incivility has the capacity to destroy strong, unified and healthy societies. The reverse is true — harmonious, courteous, safe and civil communities persist by exhibiting respectful, kind and concerned human interaction.

We Need Civility in Politics Because The Kids ARE Watching
Posted at The Times of San Diego, March 7, 2016

Perhaps we can’t stop the escalating behavior and rhetoric in the political landscape, but we can provide students with an understanding of our how our government works best, how to critically assess the 2016 primaries, and how the respective candidates’ ideas, styles and capacity for collaboration might affect our democracy.

In this election year, the anger, distrust and contentiousness of the people toward government have gotten our attention. What hasn’t been talked about so much is how this mood affects those who will inherit the future: our youth. Will the unintended consequences of this toxic election year move our nation into an era of even further division and fragmentation? Or will we find the will to show the next generation how to live effectively in a diverse and eclectic world with others of differing opinions?How we answer this question for our children may well shape the America we leave them even more than the actual election outcome.

Political Correctness is Correct
Posted by Doug Fairbanks at, March 19, 2016

So this brings me to the correctness of political correctness. In my opinion, political correctness is just one attempt to help all of us be more aware of the value and worth of every human being. We only need to access any form of news media to discover that our world and our society have not risen to that high calling. And, though political correctness can make us feel a bit uncomfortable at times, better that than becoming so complacent in regards to human relationships that we become numb to treating each other with mutual respect.

As a child, I learned to sing, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.” As a Christian, I am reminded that my main goal is to love as God loves. As a human being, I am aware that I fail at that more often than I care to admit. But at least the awareness of the truth bothers me enough that I keep on trying to imitate God’s extravagant love.

Again, political correctness is at least a feeble attempt to be like a burr under the saddle of our human psyche, reminding us that all is not well in human relationships and we need to keep trying to make it better. Indeed, we need to keep trying to make it much better. And I say better that we continue to be disturbed in this regard than just write off the correctness of political correctness.

We Need More Than Civility; We Need Kindness
Posted by Russell D. Moore at, March 19, 2016

When we don’t oppose demons, we demonize opponents. And without a clear vision of the concrete forces we as the church are supposed to be aligned against, we find it very difficult to differentiate between enemy combatants and their hostages.

The Scriptures command us to be gentle and kind to unbelievers, not because we are not at war, but because we’re not at war with them (2 Tim. 2:26). When we see that we are warring against principalities and powers in the heavenly places, we can see that we’re not wrestling against flesh and blood (Eph. 6:12). The path to peace isn’t through bellicosity or surrender, but through fighting the right war (Rom. 16:20). We rage against the Reptile, not against his prey.

We hear many calls, from across the religious and political spectrum, for civility. But civility is not enough. Civility is a neutral ground, a sort of mutual non-aggression pact, where we agree to respect one another and not to belittle one another. That’s important, and a good start, but that’s not enough. Just as we are not for “toleration” of those who religiously disagree with us but for “liberty,” so we should not be for mere civility, but for, from our end, kindness. Civility is passive; kindness is active and strategic.

Reflecting on Civility on Our Eighteenth Anniversary

On April Fool’s Day of 1998, we launched the Institute for Civility in Government by walking the halls of Congress and introducing ourselves and the newly-formed organization we had been planning since the previous fall. We were met with laughter, puzzlement, bemusement, confusion, politeness, and in some offices – real interest. While some people who knew us and had been to Washington, D.C. with us immediately jumped on board with their membership and support, most people – both in D.C. and back home – wondered why we were concerned about civility. Some even asked us what the word meant.

Eighteen years later, people no longer wonder why we are concerned. Civility is one of those things that we tend to take for granted until we no longer have it. It is one of those things that we assume is just the norm until it isn’t. And then, faced with its opposite, we realize that civility is the all-essential glue that holds a diverse society together. It is the grease that keeps daily interactions moving forward and makes life in community possible. In the realm of government, it is what makes problem-solving possible. And we have some big problems to solve.

Since our launch, some things have changed. A 2016 poll by Weber Shandwick indicates that people have a greater awareness than ever of civility’s importance. 95% of participants now believe that its absence is a problem in the United States, compared with only 65% in 2010, when they first did the survey. Fully 70% now say that incivility in this country has risen to “crisis” levels, up from 65% in 2014. Increasingly, lack of civility in the United States has become a source of concern for people. And increasingly, according to the poll, people are ready to do something about it.

But some things have also remained the same. We still define civility for folks, and a lot of people have found our definition to be helpful. For us, civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs, and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. That is the definition that Tomas Spath and I came up with years ago, and it is still the one we and all the members of the Institute stand by today. It does not say we have to agree with one another. In fact it celebrates differences and tells us we should claim them. Differences are enriching. But they are also difficult. And our definition encourages us to focus on why we hold our positions, and on the strength of our beliefs, rather than demonizing those who think and believe differently.

But then as now, a definition – even a popular one – is not enough. Although there is an increased awareness of the importance of civility and a growing concern about its absence, people must take the next step. They must be willing to believe they can make a difference and turn this cultural drift around. They must believe that voices joined are voices heard, and that investments in teaching our youth civility today will pay off in a more civil nation tomorrow. Then as now, we must educate people about the Institute’s existence, and convince them to join.

Since we launched the Institute, a devoted group of Americans – and people from around the world – have joined our cause, and many more have made donations to support it. People have participated in our programs and shared our educational materials, and through that we have built a strong foundation for a movement. This week, on our eighteenth anniversary, is the time for you to add your voice to ours and become a member of the Institute for Civility in Government. It is no small thing, and though you might not see it today, it will make a big difference.


Cassandra Dahnke & Tomas Spath
Co-Founders, Institute for Civility in Government

Supreme Court Nominee Merrick Garland’s Pattern of Civility

The Institute does not endorse candidates or policies, and it certainly doesn’t endorse nominees for judicial appointments. But from time to time, as we read the news, we’ll see something from a public figure – or about a public figure – that’s profoundly heartening. It has happened over the past several months with both Bernie Sanders and Chris Christie, who have each had exemplary moments of civility. And it’s happening again right now, as we learn more about D.C. Circuit Court judge and newly-minted Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.

Supreme Court of the United States

In an interview after the nomination, NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenberg pointed out to President Obama that he could have chosen a candidate for the highest court who would be much more satisfying to his liberal base, and who might more effectively inflame Democrats’ passions in an election year. Asked about the logic of choosing the seemingly moderate Garland instead, the President said this:

This moment in our history – a time when judicial nominations have become so contentious, a time when our politics is so full of vitriol – I think particularly benefits from a man who by all accounts is decent, full of integrity, is someone who tries to hear the other side’s point of view, and can build bridges.

The President told Totenberg that Garland has shown himself to be a consensus builder, and that he believes, rightly, that we’re at a time where the more consensus we can forge, the better off we’re going to be.

Now, Garland is the President’s nominee. And the President has every reason to inflate his bona fides, including – or perhaps especially – his prowess as a civil guy. But we don’t need to take President Obama’s word on Merrick Garland’s civility. In the wake of his nomination, civility – born of integrity and diligence – has quickly become one of his most talked-about characteristics.

There is Republican Senator Orrin Hatch’s praise for Garland, whom he called a moderate and a fine man. And there is Chief Justice John Roberts’s assessment, at his own confirmation hearing, that anytime Judge Garland disagrees, you know you’re in a difficult area.

But more to the point, there are Merrick Garland’s former clerks and colleagues.

On CNN, Jeffrey Bellin, William & Mary Law School professor and former clerk to Garland said this of his process as an appellate court judge:

He works behind the scenes to find common ground. When called upon to do so, he will explain to other judges why the record, the facts and the law support his view. If they don’t agree, he will listen. The resulting opinions are carefully crafted to find consensus, reflecting the reality, not the rhetoric, of “rule of law.”

The most telltale sign of Garland’s influence is not blazing rhetoric; it is that a diverse group of judges will agree on the resolution of an otherwise polarizing case.

Former clerk Jay Michaelson, in The Daily Beast, wrote about his commitment to conscience over ideology:

There was not a single case I worked on with him, from the most mundane Federal Energy Regulation Commission matter to a 20-plus-year-old civil rights case, in which politics played into his considerations. Conscience, sure — Judge Garland often reminded me that there were human beings on both sides of these contentious cases—but never ideology.

In The Recorder, UC Davis law professor Albert Lin said that Garland’s goal has often been to resolve cases in a way where he could get consensus from the entire panel. And John Trasvina, dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law, said: I couldn’t imagine him ending a discussion based on whose voice was loudest or who had the most authority. More than to win, Garland’s goal has been to move some minds.

That’s a pattern of high praise. Individuals on all sides of the political spectrum, and more importantly people who have worked with him, have called Merrick Garland’s process deliberate and inclusive. They have indicated that he listens when others disagree with his assessments, and that he is more interested in decisions that are satisfactory to as many parties as possible than decisions that simply forward his beliefs.

The politics of Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination are complicated, both in terms of his own beliefs which are generally regarded to be somewhere on the progressive side of moderate, and in terms of the process of his confirmation, which is held up in no small part by the pending presidential election.

But for our purposes, all of that is besides the point. What’s important here is that in his professional life, Judge Garland seems committed to a brand of civility that prefers deliberation on the facts – and that prefers consensus and good communication over polarizing pronouncements. And regardless of where his nomination ends up, that’s a thing from which we all can learn.

A Note About the Rhetoric of Violence

Shepard Fairey MegaphoneWhile it is obvious that we should all strive for civility in our politics and our everyday lives, there is a certain way that it is a little bit of a tricky prospect.

On the one hand, as we discussed earlier this year, political correctness can be a civility red herring. Far from placing us in a position where we are claiming and caring for our identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process, political correctness is about sublimating our needs and beliefs in favor of the priorities of others.

Political correctness, for example, does not tell us that we should not harbor resentments toward shifting demographics in the United States – and it doesn’t tell us how we can think reflectively about usefully sharing our physical or political space. Rather, it tells us that if we hold unpopular biases, we should secret them away because it is not socially acceptable for those parts of ourselves to exist, and we will be shamed if we express them.

Political correctness, in other words, shuts down communication. And good communication is key for civility to flourish.

But political correctness is not the only, or even the most pernicious, rhetorical force that works like this. And though we should be wary of ideologies and their adherents when they call for us to silence ourselves, we should be especially wary when they call for us to silence others.

This, in particular, is the problem with ideologies that utilize violence as a rhetorical strategy.

Like political correctness, the threat of violence shuts down communication. It does so not by telling us that our needs are unacceptable, but by telling us that our needs are the only ones that matter – that the needs of others are of so little consequence that it’s only right to dismiss them out of hand.

Violent rhetoric achieves this in two ways at once. First, it’s factionalizing. It points us toward some external enemy, real or imagined, and insists: it’s us or them. We who are insiders must stand together as a group, because otherwise the outsiders will take what’s ours.

And second, it recasts the outsiders as monsters. It suggests that because they seem unlike us, or because they disagree with us, or sometimes even because they are weaker than us, their ideas not only have no merit, they are poisonous. The needs and beliefs of those outside the faction are not three-dimensional or indicative of any actual needs and beliefs at all; instead, they are meant only to harm us and weaken our social standing.

The result is a kind of paranoia: the notion that in a world of limited resources, we must stand with the people we identify as most like us because, certainly, that’s what the next guy is doing.

The result is petty hatred: the feeling that people who don’t share our characteristics – race, or religion, or politics, or whatever other factor – are somehow inferior, or disgusting, or debased.

The result is that violent rhetoric tends to become violent deeds: first meant to stop the supposed invaders, but ultimately to suppress even the softest whispers of dissent from within.

And the result is that while civility seems like such a simple thing so much of the time, in the face of prominent figures espousing violence and threats, the high road can sometimes feel very narrow, indeed.

In light of our current national flirtation with violent rhetoric, it might behoove those of us who wish to advance the cause of civility to ask some basic questions about the place of tolerance in a pluralist society. Writing in 1947, directly in the wake of one of the most tragic outbreaks of ideologically driven violence we have known, philosopher Karl Popper suggested that there is such a thing as a paradox of tolerance: that unlimited tolerance, as he writes, must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.

If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

Popper, writing at the dawn of modern laws against hate speech in Europe, suggested that we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal. That suggestion is obviously unsuitable to the culture and circumstances of the United States, and we don’t advocate it.

But he did make an important point. He said that we must distinguish between those intolerant ideologies that can be countered by rational argument and kept in check by public opinion, and those that reject rational argument – that forbid their followers to listen to anything as deceptive as rational argument, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists.

As advocates of civility, we recognize that communication is key. The possibility of achieving desirable outcomes through a civil process requires that I be able to make a reasoned case for my needs and beliefs to you, and that you are able to do the same for me.

Our political system exists largely within the realm where this kind of civil exchange is possible, even if we don’t always achieve it perfectly. But we must remain ever vigilant against encroaching ideologies that reject rationality in favor of fists. Our civility, after all, makes us vulnerable to the paradox of tolerance. And if we are not careful, within our desire to accommodate a plurality of voices, we potentially plant the seeds of civility’s demise.

Image: “London Mural” by Shepard Fairey. Photograph by George Rex via Flickr, licensed CC-BY-SA.