Five Civility Considerations for a Better Thanksgiving

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

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

Five Strategies for Thanksgiving Civility

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

Get acquainted with the 70/30 rule.

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

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

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

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

Consider the context for relatives’ beliefs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer is maybe, but probably not.

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

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

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

The personal is political, but maybe not at Thanksgiving.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Our Thoughts are with Paris

The highest goal of civility is to prevent violence. The goal, by cultivating a willingness to listen across divisions of ideology and identity, is to create the channels of communication that allow us to live together in relative peace.

In Paris, yesterday, that civility and peace failed profoundly. More than one hundred twenty people died, and more than three hundred people were injured, in attacks that targeted six sites across the city including a concert venue and a soccer field.

Paris Peace

Viral, attributed to @jean_jullien

There is time for analysis of the rhetoric and the events that surround this terrible tragedy. But the present is for grief, and for we who are far away to extend a hand of sympathy and support to those affected by the violence.

Today we all stand with Paris.

Chris Christie’s Moment of Exemplary Civility

Almost two months ago, now, I wrote about a moment of exemplary civility in the presidential primary race. Bernie Sanders, self-proclaimed socialist and Senator from Vermont, running for the Democratic nomination for President, reached out across divisions in party, region, religion, and ideology to speak to the students at Liberty University, the evangelical Christian college founded by the late Jerry Falwell.

I said then that the Institute does not endorse Sanders (or any other candidate or political position), but that when these sorts of extraordinarily civil moments come along – especially in an election cycle that much of the media is characterizing as particularly rough – it’s important to point them out and give credit where credit is due.

Well, it happened again this past week.

This week, we saw New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a candidate for the Republican nomination for President, transcend party politics and its points-scoring ethos for a moment to speak with passion and humanity about a topic that itself transcends our traditional political bounds: addiction. As Rolling Stone reports, Christie talked about his mother, who took up smoking as a teenager and tried to quit multiple times before she was diagnosed with lung cancer at 71, and then about a close friend whose life was destroyed by a painkiller addiction.

He spoke out against the blame game – the notion that people who become addicted to a substance deserve what they get – and in favor of institutions that privilege recovery over punishment and help people reorder their lives:

It can happen to anyone. And so we need to start treating people in this country. Not jailing them. We need to give them the tools they need to recover because every life is precious. Every life is an individual gift from God. And we have to we stop judging and start giving them the tools they need to get better.

What’s interesting about this as a trans-partisan moment is that Governor Christie’s politics did not go away. I am pro-life, he told his listeners. There’s no arguing about that. But he continued by telling them that in his view, if you’re pro-life, that means you’ve got to be pro-life for the whole life. Not just for the nine months they’re in the womb.

What he told his base of conservative supporters, in other words, is that he is with them – he shares their values. But at the same time, those values don’t preclude the possibility of finding common ground with people who hold different beliefs. And in fact, even the most central of conservative policy positions can be a conduit through, rather than a hindrance to, finding agreement across ideological conviction.

As if to underscore this, Governor Christie’s words reflected those of Pope Francis, much beloved by American progressives, who in September told a joint session of Congress that the golden rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

Questions of partisanship aside, however, what makes Governor Christie’s words truly exemplary of civility are their humanity. Fox News called his comments deeply personal. Rolling Stone said he shared an intensely personal pair of anecdotes. But the fact that the topic of addiction is close to Chris Christie’s heart is beside the point.

What his speech does is acknowledge that we all share a common humanity, whether or not we are afflicted by addiction, and that that commonality requires we act with compassion. It’s easy to be pro-life for the nine months you’re in the womb, he told his audience. They haven’t done anything to disappoint us yet. But it’s just as important to care for the 16-year-old teenage girl on the floor of the country lockup, addicted to heroin. Because, as he says later, there but for the grace of God go I.

If we take as our starting point that civility is about claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process, then this acknowledgment that we are all, at our core, the same, is key. It’s key to the notion of empathy – the idea that the drive of other people to pursue their needs and beliefs matters as much, or nearly as much, as our own. And it’s key to building the kind of trust that allows substantive discussions of policy – or anything else, really – to move forward: it’s about offering validation of our partners’ fundamental right to come to the table, even if we disagree about every other point.

As I said about Bernie Sanders last month, the Institute does not endorse Chris Christie or his positions. But in speaking about a difficult and sensitive topic, he offers a model for the kind of behavior that might lead us out of campaign quibbling and toward substantial, inclusive discussion.  And that’s a thing that we definitely want to applaud.

The full video of Chris Christie’s remarks can be found here.

Civility Linkblogging: Refugees, Classrooms, and Parts of 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.

The most striking item in this week’s collection is probably linguist John McWhorter’s discussion of the pronoun ‘ze’ at There, he discusses the word in the context of the history of gender-neutral language, and he talks about why pronouns are such a difficult class of words to change. But most significantly, he talks about the necessity of gender-neutral pronouns as a civility issue: calling people what they want to be called, he tells us, is both a matter of courtesy and an affirmation that their voice counts, too.

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:

‘Please, Have Some Tea.’ For Refugees, Civility Before Danger.
Posted by Jeanne Carstensen at, October 2, 2015

Yet they both insist on inviting me to tea. This detail — of hospitality offered in a moment of extremis — sticks with me. I had gone to the Basmane neighborhood with some trepidation. After all, it’s the center of human trafficking, as it’s called, the business of moving people illegally across borders. Looking around me I wondered who was who, who was a trafficker, or a middleman, or a refugee. But when I sat down to interview Asas and Nour and others with my microphone held close to their faces I quickly felt at ease.

I offered to pay for the tea but they would not accept. And when beggars came by our table, the refugees reached into their pockets for coins. No one was turned down.

Civility Counts in the Classroom
Posted by Summer Moore at at, October 11, 2015

Think about kids. They are inherently civil because they are so curious. Why is the sky blue? Why does Jimmy have two dads? Why does that person live on the street?

They are yearning for answers and will take them from the person they deem the best authority. Most of the time that person is a parent or guardian, a teacher or caregiver.

We feel that we can reach kids when they are deciding how to interact with people that aren’t the same as them. We can show them that where you’re from and what you look like doesn’t have to mean we can’t respect each other.

Goodbye to ‘He’ and ‘She’ and Hello to ‘Ze’?
Posted by John McWhorter at CNN, October 14, 2015

Language changes with the times, and when it comes to our conceptions of gender, the times are most certainly changing.

We are opening up to the idea that binary conceptions of gender are unnecessarily rigid and don’t correspond to the self-image of a great many people, and even that people’s sense of their gender may not correspond to their biological sex. In this new world, a bland opposition between “he” and “she” seems increasingly antique, and even insulting, to many. …

Now, I would hope that pronouns like “ze” would not be imposed with the knuckle-rapping and contemptuous indignation with which the Billy and I rule has been promulgated. However, there is room for presenting “ze” as a matter not of fashion, but of basic civility — people must think of new pronouns as the proper thing to do, not as a stunt.

Searching for Civility After a Campus’s Annus Horribilis
Posted by Mary Beth Mathews at The Christian Century, October 14, 2015

Directly related to speaking up inside the classroom is my second goal: to build empathy among my students, one class session at a time. That can take the form of free-flowing discussions about current events, but it can also be accomplished by asking students to list and expand on the motivating factors at work in American history and religion. Students will almost always condemn anti-Semitism, for example. But they are better able to see how hatred is constructed and used for oppression after they critically examine the confluence of events that led to Henry Ford’s interest in the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Once they understand the background of such hate speech, it becomes easier for them to identify with the victims of hatred, oppression, and ridicule. Then they can more easily recognize similar biases in society today.

We Found Civility on the ‘Lord of the Flies’ of MMO Servers
Posted by Leif Johnson at Motherboard, October 15, 2015

In fact, a month in, a good number of players seem to live by an ad-hoc code, which contrasts sharply with reports of mass slayings at the spawn-in points for new characters during the game’s launch last month. Now that the novelty of killing newbie players where they spawn has worn off, there’s a touch of civility mingled in with the chaos.

I once saw a roving band of high-level players in the lawless zones as I attempted a run from one bank to another with a fairly low-level hero, only to watch them pass within combat distance without so much as glancing at me.

“Cheers,” one said as they trotted by, leaving me thankful for the mercy.

Black Lives Matter, Presidential Candidates, Sit Down

Popular media coverage of Black Lives Matter in this presidential primary season often portrays activists in the movement as a less than civil bunch. Reporters tend to focus on their loudest, not their most civil, tactics. The group got a lot of attention, for example, for their action this past August 8, in which activistsaccording to Time onlineinterrupted Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a rally in Seattle, stopping the politician from speaking. Two women and a man, the article explains, shoved Sanders aside, grabbed the microphone, and addressed the crowd themselves.

Black Lives Matter, Presidential Campaigns, Sit Down

Photo by Tiffany Von Arnim, via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed CC-BY.

According to The Las Vegas Sun, Jeb Bush saw a similar disruption in Nevada just days later. And so did Hillary Clinton at a rally in New Hampshire.

But disruption is only one tactic that Black Lives Matter employs. And while the group may seem to privilege the adversarial over the civil at times, this article at Medium by DeRay Mckesson shows us that this is just the beginning of the story, and that civility, too, is well within the group’s arsenal of tools.

Mckesson, who is himself a Black Lives Matter activist, updates readers on a series of meetings that he and others have had these past few weeks with candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and on their plans to sit down for discussions with other candidates including Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, and Martin O’Malley.

The movement, according to what Mckesson has written, seems to take a page from the Institute’s own Student Legislative Seminars. In the Student Legislative Seminars, teams of high school students led by Institute officers choose and research one exigent problem, decide their positions on the issues together through active dialogue with one another, then meet – in this case with members of Congress and their staff – to share their concerns and opinions. The process requires that students find consensus. And it requires that they are able to advocate forcefully for their needs and beliefs while at the same time respecting others’ positions.

The Black Lives Matter strategy is not exactly this one, but it’s close. Mckesson writes that in preparation for meeting with the candidates, activists do extensive research: they review their previously stated policy positions and the campaigns published platform, in order to develop specific questions on focused topics.

He writes that they choose a relatively narrow list of topics about which to talk: issues related to policing, income inequality, marijuana legalization, legislative avenues to address racial inequality, and civil asset forfeiture in the case of Bernie Sanders; and criminal justice reform, prison privatization, and violence against the black trans community in the case of Hillary Clinton.

He tells us that the group recognizes that it is not just the candidate, but also their aides, who need to be involved. The staff, he writes, are often best versed in the details of specific legislation or policies.

And he tells us that, regardless of party affiliation, the movement is open to meeting with any candidate seeking to be the next President to discuss these ideas.

Based on Mckesson’s description, not everything about these interactions seems conventionally civil. The article repeatedly uses the term push to describe how activists interact with candidates. As in:

We pushed HRC to clarify her position on demilitarizing the police, pushing her to go beyond ending the use of federal funds by police departments to buy military equipment.

But pushing, from the perspective of the activists, may not be unwarranted. As Patrisse Cullors wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, there is a perception that the Democratic Party in particular has milked the Black vote while creating policies that completely decimate Black communities. And besides, there is no reason, from a civility perspective, not to advocate forcefully for your needs and beliefs as long as that forcefulness is tempered by respect and a willingness to listen.

And those two last elements do indeed seem to be present. Mckesson accepts Hillary Clinton’s response on police militarization, for example, when he says that she wanted to do more research before she can take a position. And he writes that – in the style of an honest discussion – Bernie Sanders pushed back in a discussion of income vs. wealth inequality: he sought to gain clarity on some of the data before he could come to any particular conclusion.

The results of these meetings have been productive. Mckesson writes that both Sanders and Clinton have released policy papers based partly on their outcomes, and that some of the ideas discussed made it into the recent Democratic debate.

But for our purposes on The Civility Blog, there are two issues that are even more important than any specific result. The first is that the Mckesson article offers further confirmation of media filtering: that media-generated narratives about most things – and especially issues related to race, class, or activism – are thoroughly shaped for one primary purpose: the project of attracting eyes and therefore selling ads.

The second important piece that we get from the Mckesson article is what amounts to a model. One thing we’ve seen in the media’s coverage of Black Lives Matter is that their tactics are often not in fact civil. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The sorts of meetings that Mckesson describes offer a way forward through discussion and the thoughtful exchange of ideas that is effective even, or perhaps especially, when the issues at hand are dire and require redress.

One could make the argument – and not be wrong – that without the direct action, without disrupting presidential candidates’ rallies, these meetings would never have happened at all. But more than a defense of this sort of incivility, that assertion suggests an important question: what steps can we take in our political culture so that more people – and especially young people of color – can have their voices heard and their needs met without having to stand up and shout?

Civility, Trust, and Gun Violence

It’s difficult to talk about the issue of civility in relation to our national debate about gun violence. Acts of violence like the one we saw today on the campus of Northern Arizona University, or the one we saw last week at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College, are of course inherently, profoundly the opposite of civil. In the course of one person’s cry for attention, such heinous acts silence the voices of others, rend communities, and eliminate the possibility of a productive solution to whatever kind of problem – or perceived problem – precipitated the violence to begin with.

But beyond the event itself, our discussions of such tragedies seem to push civility away to the margins. Folks in favor of changes to gun laws hear protests that we need to respect the rights of gun owners as an endorsement of mass violence. While defenders of gun rights indulge the slippery-slope fallacy that any curb on where and how guns may be used is the first step toward an outright ban.

Part of this incivility can be put down to the adversarial nature of the campaign process in which Americans are now so thoroughly engaged. The polarization of presidential primaries means that when candidate Ben Carson told ABC News that were he in Oregon, he would ask everybody to attack the gunman because he can only shoot one of us at a time, he took the extreme position he believed he needed in order to appease his base. And when The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah responded, I think he’s overestimating how inspiring his presence might be, he went the ad hominem route he believed would make his audience laugh.

The problem, though, is that this kind of polarized response doesn’t just happen in front of the cameras. On Twitter, gun proponents who are surely otherwise civil people mix personal attacks with hyperbole, contributing to the transformation of a conversation into a shouting match.

Civility, Trust, and Gun Control

While gun opponents, elsewhere, do the same. Alex Pareene at Gawker tells gun control advocates to emulate the most extreme fringe of the anti-abortion movement, hoisting graphic signs bearing the images of dead children outside of gun stores:

If the gun control movement actually, really wants to change America’s gun culture, they will have to put the least reasonable and the least accommodating activists they can find in charge of directing the entire movement.

It’s understandable that a debate about gun violence – especially – might move people to these sorts of extremes. If we consider psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory of a hierarchy of human needs for a moment, “personal safety” is more fundamental than “esteem,” which is where we might reasonably imagine civility falls.

Civility, Trust, and Gun Violence

Image by FireflySixtySeven, via Wikimedia Commons — CC-BY-SA

We can contest the accuracy of Maslow’s hierarchy. We can say – as many researchers have done since he first published his schema – that human necessities are not so strictly segregated as he suggests and that we can in fact seek self-actualization and physiological necessities at the same time. But in this case, his pyramid is telling and it illuminates a very real problem.

In order to achieve a measure of safety where guns are concerned, we must be able to hold a civil debate. But it is difficult to have a civil debate until all sides in the discussion feel that they have achieved safety.

This is a paradox, but it is not an insurmountable one. And for our own sake and the sake of our neighbors, it is a paradox that we absolutely must surmount. The fact of the matter is that almost no gun rights advocate is comfortable with the idea that there have been – conservatively – 341 deaths in high-profile mass shootings since the year 2000. And the fact is that it is only a very few gun control advocates who believe it is either possible or advisable to part Americans from their guns entirely.

So when President Obama tells us, as he did in his comments about the Oregon shootings, that we must reconsider the notion… that our freedom and our Constitution prohibits any modest regulation of how we use a deadly weapon, we should take him at his word that he is not in fact out to ban all guns. And when a gun advocate like Representative Trent Franks says that he believes gun-free zones are magnets for shooters who deliberately choose a place where they know no one can defend themselves, we should take him at his word, too, that he is earnestly trying to advocate for a solution he thinks is right.

As much as anything, a debate about the place of guns in the future of American society has to begin with a modicum of trust that all sides of the issue are coming to the table with positions that they hold in good faith. Because it is only through that trust that civility can prevail, and it is only with civility that we can engage in the very serious discussion of this topic that we so desperately need.

Civility Linkblogging: Iran, Kentucky, and George Washington

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 takes on some hot-button issues in the current landscape of political news. Here we have perspective on the Iran nuclear deal, and an example of a civil way forward among Americans who disagree. We have a take on Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis and the line between disagreeing with her ideologies and actions, and abusing her online. And we have some discussion of the current presidential race, and some lessons the candidates could take from a young George Washington.

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:

Kim Davis Might Be Wrong, But So Is Demonizing Her For Her Convictions
Posted by Qasim Rashid at The Daily Caller, September 7, 2015

Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who has stated that she is willing to go to jail for the sake of her religious beliefs, became the punchline of jokes for things that had nothing to do with her stance on gay marriage.

“How could someone this ugly be married three times?” read one meme. “Who gave her a license to eat that much?” read another.

What is it about the social media age that makes us behave so cruelly towards one another?

I Cannot Tell a Lie: I Miss Political Civility
Posted by Sean Coletti at The Idaho Statesman, September 8, 2015

Over 200 years have come and gone since Washington wrote these maxims. It is incredible that a giant as great as Washington was the epitome of these qualities — even his enemies recognized it.

And it is deplorable that the level of public discourse of some of our presidential candidates and other leaders has fallen so far off of this course.

Modesty. Reason. Humility. Kindness. Politeness. Respect. These qualities do not go out of style — nor should we let them — regardless of how some in positions of status may talk or act publicly.

Booker’s Visit to Livingston Temple Brings Needed Civility to the Iran Debate
Posted by Tom Moran at, September 8, 2015

What really struck me was that both sides spoke with respect, and even affection, despite the strong emotions this deal has roused.

Booker noted that he and his Democratic partner, Sen. Robert Menendez, came to different conclusions, and both have been vilified.

“It’s unacceptable to me on both sides,” Booker said. “Bob Menendez is brilliant. We disagree on this issue, but to see him demeaned, to be called a warmonger? He voted against the war in Iraq….It makes me so mad. He stays awake at night worrying about these issues.”

Finding Ways to Maintain Civility With Your Competitors
Posted by Dena Lefkowitz at The Legal Intelligencer, September 17, 2015

Lack of civility is not only unpleasant, it can also make cases harder to resolve, because people take greater risks when they are angry and that can be bad for business. Jennifer Smith wrote about this in a Wall Street Journal article titled “Lawyers Behaving Badly Get a Dressing Down From Civility Cops,” about the New York Inn of Court, a legal group that promotes collegiality and ethical behavior. She quoted an attorney who said, “‘When I’m upset, I can feel the testosterone rising, and I can literally feel my judgment declining.'” He was a co-chair of the American Board of Trial Advocates’ committee on professionalism, ethics and civility.

Lawyers who successfully compartmentalize the client, the case and the counsel on the other side will have richer, more satisfying careers. Every person we meet represents an opportunity, and if you automatically disqualify those who oppose you in litigation or negotiation, you miss out.

Take a Course in Civility
Posted by Bill Black and Tom Tozer at The Daily News Journal, September 18, 2015

We’re not sure that any school in the nation will ever require students to take a course in civility. Not civics. Civility.

But we think it would be a good idea. We are not a civil society these days. We have replaced conversation with confrontation. In many cases, violence is the first resort. And it’s not a question of teaching morals. It goes more deeply than that. It’s a matter of values.

Our values define us.

A value is an intangible ideal that we personify by the way we live and conduct ourselves in society. If we hold sacred the value that every human being deserves respect, then we wouldn’t think of hurting another person by our words or actions.

Civility and the Filter Bubble

Last week, writing about Bernie Sanders’s speech at Liberty University, I mentioned in passing the perils of living in a bubbled media environment. I defined the term, offhandedly, as a situation in which individuals on the left or the right… see only news that supports their ideologies. It occurred to me only after I published the post that I had never talked about bubbling here before, and that it is a concept that is essential to the contemporary landscape of civility – or the lack thereof.

Civility and the Filter Bubble

The term bubbling – or filter bubbling – comes from online activist Eli Pariser and gained notoriety in his 2010 book, titled somewhat dramatically The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. Filter bubbling, Pariser says, is the situation in which websites are personalizing themselves to suit our interests:

For example, on Google, most people assume that if you search for BP, you’ll get one set of results that are the consensus set of results in Google. Actually, that isn’t true anymore. Since Dec. 4, 2009, Google has been personalized for everyone. So when I had two friends this spring Google “BP,” one of them got a set of links that was about investment opportunities in BP. The other one got information about the oil spill. Presumably that was based on the kinds of searches that they had done in the past.

Now, five years after the publication of Pariser’s book, this is old news (relatively speaking). Not only does Google filter results, but so does Yahoo, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and a host of other popular sites. In part, the idea behind it is to return results that users will find relevant. And in part it’s a business decision. All of these services are essentially platforms for serving advertisements, and the more content of which users approve, the more likely it is that they will approve of the ads, too.

In any case, the problem with bubbling is that, at its worst, it works as a kind of extension of our preexisting tendency toward confirmation bias. As Jacob Weisberg, writing at Slate, says, it’s now possible to imagine a world in which every person creates his own mental fortress and apprehends the outside world through digital arrow-slits. Or to paraphrase Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web: it is a method by which we create a closed silo of content that excludes the kinds of information that call into question what we already think.

If you are not Web savvy but this sounds familiar, it may be because the filter bubble extends well beyond services like search engines. The editorial process of newspaper and television newsrooms has always shown the ideological biases of its decision-makers. Choices about which items are newsworthy and in what priority they are shown can by definition never be objective.

But what is new since the turn of the millennium is that with the proliferation of cable news channels and online news-analysis outlets like The Daily Kos and The Drudge Report, we can now self-select for progressive or conservative takes on news stories, and for other kinds of ideological preferences from attitudes toward technology, to religion, to whatever else.

In effect, in other words, we increasingly tend to bubble ourselves.

Returning to civility, the problem with the filter bubble should be abundantly clear. If we see only the viewpoints that confirm that our ideological positions are correct, we are apt to assume that they are in fact correct. And even if we know intellectually that other positions exist and that we are not seeing them only because of an invisible algorithm, we are apt to feel that those positions are somehow lesser, or secondary, or exist on the fringe.

This leads to a kind of polarization of opinion where we are less apt to listen to those who disagree with us for two reasons. First, we simply don’t hear from those people as much. And second, when we do hear from those people, we are not in practice at listening past our preconceived notions and taking other points of view seriously. It is not necessarily malicious. But if we don’t exercise those muscles, they are apt to atrophy.

There is a another, perhaps more serious, implication of this for civility, too. The choice not to see those people who disturb our preexisting ideologies – whether we make that choice or whether Google makes that choice for us – represents a kind of devaluation. If all we see, for example, of the culture of rural Louisiana are the most snide, least sympathetic news stories about television’s Duck Dynasty, that will inevitably color our perceptions of rural Louisianans for the worse. And if we don’t see thoughtful information about what people in that region want – if we don’t see them represented as they want to be represented – there is no opportunity at all for the rest of us to change our minds.

The trouble with bubbling, in the end, is in the preliminary work that needs to be done to get to a notion of civility as claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. How can we find ways to not degrade others’ identity, needs and beliefs if our media filters prevent us from having a real sense of what those things are? And how can we find ways to value other people’s opinions if the media we consume tells us not to take them seriously?

That said, there are some things that we can do to thwart bubbling. In terms of search engines: Google searches have, for several years now, offered a ‘verbatim’ option which presents results without the filter; and other search engines, notably DuckDuckGo, explicitly market themselves as non-bubbling.

Civility and the Filter Bubble

But even simpler than that is the choice to read multiple news sources. Sources that agree with our ideologies are great and in many cases valuable, but so are sources that disagree; and so are sources like foreign newspapers that provide an outsider’s perspective. If you read The Washington Post, read The Washington Times, too. If you read The Wall Street Journal, try The New York Times.  And we should all, perhaps, be reading Der Spiegel, or Corriere della Sera, or Al Jazeera.

Since Eli Pariser’s book in 2010, we’ve seen a lot of writing about ways to improve technology to combat bubbling. And yes, that is important. But for the sake of civility, the simple act of diversity in what we read is pretty important, too.

Bernie Sanders in the Belly of the Beast

Just to be clear: the Institute for Civility in Government does not endorse any specific policy positions or candidates for office. And we are not endorsing Senator Bernie Sanders for any kind of office now. That said, this week Bernie Sanders had a moment that is exemplary of many of the faces of civility that we explore here on this blog. And we do feel that it is important to give credit where credit is due.

Sanders, a left-wing, politically independent, self-proclaimed socialist from the small northern state of Vermont, running for President as a Democrat, chose to travel to Lynchburg, Virginia this week to speak at Liberty University, a conservative Evangelical Christian institution founded by the late famed televangelist Jerry Falwell, and run today by his son.

His speech, as Jennifer Harper of The Washington Times writes, covered some familiar Sanders ground: he talked about poverty, health care and insurance challenges, youth unemployment, and unequal wealth distribution… equating them with injustice and a lack of ethics and morality. But in framing those positions – and in explaining why he came to Liberty University at all – this is what he had to say:

Let me start off by acknowledging what I think all of you already know. And that is the views that many here at Liberty University have and I, on a number of important issues, are very, very different. I believe in a woman’s rights and the right of a woman to control her own body. I believe gay rights and gay marriage.

Those are my views, and it is no secret. But I came here today because I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse.

Too often in our country — and I think both sides bear responsibility for us — there is too much shouting at each other. There is too much making fun of each other.

Now, in my view, and I say this as somebody whose voice is hoarse, because I have given dozens of speeches in the last few months, it is easy to go out and talk to people who agree with you…. That’s not hard to do. That’s what politicians by and large do.

We go out and we talk to people who agree with us.

But it is harder, but not less important, for us to try and communicate with those who do not agree with us on every issue.

And it is important to see where if possible, and I do believe it is possible, we can find common ground.

It is not insignificant, here, that Senator Sanders talks about civility by name. That in itself is valuable in what may well be an uncivil Presidential campaign season.

But what is so important about this statement – what makes it exemplary – is that Sanders insists that we talk, not shout, across the aisle. If the point of the governing process – as we here at the Institute believe – involves listening past one’s preconceptions and disagreeing without disrespect in order to achieve policy outcomes that are acceptable and beneficial to as many people as possible, then the simple act of speaking to the (so-called) other side is an important first step.

And in our bubbled media environment, where it is entirely possible for individuals on the left or the right to see only news that supports their ideologies, going in person to a venue that The Washington Times‘ Cal Thomas jokingly calls the belly of the beast is perhaps the most effective way to bridge that divide.

Sanders’s message, as Laura Turner of the Religion News Service puts it, is that if we could all get on the same page about the idea that we ought to treat other people the way we want to be treated, the world would be a better place to live than it is right now. Sanders says this when he tells Liberty University’s students that if nothing else, progressives and conservative Christians should be on the same page about Matthew 7:12: so in everything, do to others what you would have them to do to you. And he says it, too, as he ponders civility: that there is too much shouting at each other. There is too much making fun of each other. And every low blow is an instance where we fail to recognize that disagreement isn’t the end of a conversation, but the beginning.

Sanders, in this speech, is engaging in what Martin Marty calls convicted civility. It is the notion, as John Backman put it here on The Civility Blog last year, that people of strong conviction should seek to have their views heard and respected; but in doing so, they should seek with equal earnestness to hear and respect the convictions of others, even – or perhaps especially – when they disagree.

And in doing so, Sanders is offering a good lesson to all the prospective candidates for every office going into the 2016 election season – and to all the rest of us, too. If more candidates were willing to engage, rather than shun, their version of the belly of the beast, they might have more success listening and being listened to. And in the process, they might find the kind of consensus that leads to good governing and productive policy, and not just a spirited campaign.

Civility Linkblogging: Politics, Religion, and Golf

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 takes on three of the most touchy issues in our collective social landscape — religion, politics, and golf — and turns them all toward the purpose of civility. From all quarters, we have calls for moderation in our discourse, and calls to turn away from strategies like ad hominem attacks that do little but create bad blood. And we have a positive example in a round of golf played by Jordan Spieth and Jason Day at the recent PGA Championship where, by one account at least, the two athletes were competitive and focused on victory while still remaining genial.

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:

American Politics Needs More Civility, Not Less
Posted by Jeff Jacoby at The Boston Globe, August 16, 2015

We have reached a point where politicians fear to commit themselves to even the mildest standard of civility. In 2009, two prominent political activists, Republican Mark DeMoss and Democrat Lanny Davis, launched a campaign to try and soften the nation’s harsh public tone. They wrote to all 535 members of Congress and the 50 governors, asking each to sign a simple Civility Pledge: “I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior. I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them. I will stand against incivility when I see it.” For months the bipartisan duo promoted their civility campaign. But in the end, of the 585 elected officials to whom they sent the pledge, only three — three — were willing to sign.

We aren’t the first Americans to live in polarized, passionate times, nor the first in which political rhetoric has grown so malignant….

America today may not be on the verge of a civil war. But our ability to find common ground is diminishing by the day, and even those who should know better are calling not for more civility, but less. We are heading in the wrong direction, and it will not end well.

The Case for Competitive Civility
Posted by Scott Eblin at Excellence in Government, August 17, 2015

The executive that signed professional golfer Jordan Spieth to a long-term endorsement deal with Under Armour should get a raise. In the year, since he signed on, the 21-year-old Texan has won two major golf championships, missed winning the other two by a total of four strokes and, with his second place finish in the PGA Championship yesterday, captured the No. 1 ranking in the world.

He did all of this while remaining calm, steady and friendly. In short, he’s an absolutely killer competitor who is, by the standards of any era, remarkably civil.

Civility in the Midst of Election Season?
Posted by Joe LaGuardia at Baptist News, August 19, 2015

For Christians who long to follow in Christ’s footsteps, words indeed matter….

We can bless or curse others depending on how we say something or express our opinions; but those who use tact and mercy not only bless others but receive a blessing of kindness in return. Words can be as nourishing as fruit that is shared within community.

When we engage in politics in the public square, we speak as ambassadors of Christ and citizens of the Kingdom of God. Let us not try to keep one foot in God’s Kingdom and another foot in the world or we, as one theologian put it, will only stumble as a result.

Civility No More: Where Are the Better Angels of Politics?
Posted by Dan Glickman at The Hufington Post, August 28, 2015

Today, things are different. We have witnessed a substantial erosion of civility in political discourse in contemporary politics. In my view, the end of civility in our political system is a true loss for every American, Republican and Democrat alike.

President Bill Clinton once said that, “when people feel uncertain, they’d rather have someone who is strong and wrong than someone who is weak and right.” It looks like that is happening in America right now.

The state of contemporary politics is one in which bombast is met with approval. Extreme viewpoints are greeted with appreciative nods by a disturbingly large segment of the American electorate, and so the incentive for political leaders to make such comments is significant. Of course, there have always been and will always be people in a free and democratic country such as this who hold views that are extreme or unpopular, and it is their right to do so. But in this country politicians weren’t always so easily able to accrue benefit from being egomaniacal, indecent, uncivil and frankly just plain rude.

Faith Focus: A Call for More Civility
Posted by Al Humbrecht at, August 29, 2015

The language of civility would suggest that each side look for the good (another forgotten concept) in what the other is saying and be respectful of the differences. I wonder what this would do to the ratings of these types of programs.

The virtue of civility implies a respect (maybe another forgotten concept) for the other as being created in the image and likeness of God. If we believe this then we cannot give pejorative labels to people just because they are different in some aspects from us. Most religions of the world contain in one form or another the injunction “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” In the book “The Little Monk” by Madeline Delbrel, a collection of sayings about life, one struck me as I was preparing to write this column: “When certain people question your character, don’t respond by doubting theirs.”