Putting Our Uncivil Presidential Race in Historical Perspective

There’s a sub-genre out there of news articles about civility that focus on its decline and impending demise. The most recent, perhaps, is an August column in the Jewish Journal that begins with the austere pronouncement that the last quarter of a century has witnessed the decline of civility in U.S. politics. But it is hardly the only article of its type. Olympia Snowe made news in 2014 when she called the decline of civility in political discourse one of the big issues with Congress. The 2012 Presidential election was rife with similar sentiments. And New York Times columnist David Brooks, in 2011, proclaimed that the problem of polarization and the loss of civility in our time may be attributed to the fact that civility’s roots in modesty have been carved away.

It’s hard, looking at the current crop of presidential hopefuls, to disagree with these assessments. More than a year out from the 2016 election, contenders in this vast field of candidates are lobbing ad hominem attacks at each other and the media, and competing, it seems – from certain perspectives at least – to state their policy positions in the most crass manner possible. The column in the Jewish Journal calls the current flashpoint … the media firestorm over The Donald’s misogyny and xenophobia. But Mr. Trump is not alone. And his party is not the only culprit.

The fact, however, that a devolution into epidemic incivility is an easy narrative for many of us to like does not make it accurate. And the fact that our current culture may reward politicians for boorish behavior does not mean that that was any less true twenty-five, or fifty, or one hundred fifty years ago.

Case in point: the 1884 presidential race.

In 1884, the Democrats put up former New York Governor Grover Cleveland against the Republicans’ James G. Blaine, who had been Secretary of State to Benjamin Harrison and James Garfield. The famous icon of incivility from that race is a certain political cartoon, promoted by Republicans, that dramatized the narrative that Cleveland had abandoned an illegitimate child in order to make his run for the White House. Republicans charged that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child while he was a lawyer in Buffalo, and chanted, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” at rallies and campaign stops.

But that was hardly the only uncivil trope that year. Charging that James G. Blaine was too deep in the pockets of lobbyists and that he had corruptly influenced legislation in favor of railroads, later profiting on the sale of bonds, Democrats and competing Republicans alike labeled him a liar and a crook. Political cartoons appeared that vivified the indelible nature of Blaine’s prior misdeeds by depicting him covered in tattoos. And at Democratic political events, the rallying cries included the chanted slogan: “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine.

Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa

James G. Blaine Marked With the Indellible Ink of Corruption

1884 saw a schism in the Republican party in which one prominent faction – the so-called Mugwumps – sided with the Cleveland campaign out of outrage at Blaine’s nomination. And it saw members of the remaining Republicans engage in personal attacks against that faction, including intimations that its members were homosexual.

We tend to think of incivility in politics, and especially during campaigns, as a modern innovation because it is so amplified by television news, and especially by the 24-hour news cycle. But even at the unamplified volume of 1884 – before radio, much less television – it was no less present.

If anything, we in the twenty-first century have good cause for hope on civility in some respects. Our politicians may pepper their discourse with terms like anchor babies, and our media may make derisive comments about the state of one leading candidate’s hair. But no matter how harrowing it becomes, our political culture is not that of the 1855-56 34th Congress. And no matter how uncivil our words, none of our current crop of politicians is like U.S. Representative Preston Brooks who, on May 22, 1856, beat Senator Charles Sumner with a walking cane on the Senate floor, causing him a severe head trauma from which it took three years of convalescence to recover.

Contemporary columnists are correct in their assessment that we need more civility in our politics. It is obviously to all our advantages to talk through our differences instead of slinging mud (or wielding blunt weapons). And it is certainly to all our advantages to be in a position where we have partners on the other side of the political aisle rather than rivals or enemies.

But to overstate the case – to suggest that Washington D.C. is a sinking ship and that among its denizens, it’s every rat for himself – does no one any good. And aside from its inaccuracy, it seems demoralizing rather than motivating to suggest that the uncivil present is any worse than our uncivil past.

Pomegranates for Sale (A Work of Fiction)

sarah-tuttle-singer-guest-blogSarah Tuttle-Singer is an LA expat growing roots in Israel where she lives with her two kids in a small village with a breathtaking view of rolling fields and endless sky. Sarah is a Contributing Editor at Kveller.com, the New Media Editor at The Times of Israel, and has written for several sites including The Times of Israel, Scary Mommy, Hevria, TIME.com, Jezebel, and Ladies Home Journal.

“You’re so lucky I am here to guide you, to protect you in this part of the city,” her friend had told her ten seasons past, while they walked through a wind-rubbed Muslim Quarter deep into December.

He said this when she pointed to words in Arabic written in blood-red paint, the letters drip-dried over old stone. “In this part of town, you never know,” he continued, “if Hamas or Islamic Jihad or even a salafi, perhaps, is close by and writing on walls.”

“What does it say?” she asked, as she glanced over each shoulder, right and left, afraid.

“It says Death to the Jews,” he replied. “But don’t be afraid. You’re with me and I will tell you everything you need to know to be safe.”

And small in the shadow of the stone and of the man who knew so much about this place, she believed, and would never pass that way again.

“We can’t go this way,” she would then say to others as the months passed into two years. “There’s a sign that says Death to the Jews. So it surely isn’t safe along this road.”

But then she learned the letters for herself, the dips and bends of the Arabic script carved in buildings and written on signs. She learned the names aren’t so different, its elementary, really : Alif Ba, (like Alef Bet).

Through rockets falling and a war, she traced her fingers line by line.

And she learned to say hello in this language, too, and how to get beyond the price of pita, or black coffee, until she forgot to be afraid and ended up again in that same bend of alley space beside that writing, and startled, she looked up:

The words in red had not faded in the least.

Still sanguine stark on stone, as when she had passed them on that winter day ten seasons before.

But all alone and unafraid, she read them for herself this time:

“Five shekels a kilogram. Pomegranates for sale.”

And she laughed until the tears came, at the sweetness she had missed.

This story is a work of fiction – it didn’t happen, but it could. So much of the history and the politics of the Israeli Palestinian conflict is shaped by fear — some real, yes… But some imagined. And until both sides learn the language of the other, we cannot hope to be on the same page.

For more on language as dividers in conflict, please read:

Posts by guest authors reflect their own views and opinions, and not necessarily the views and opinions of the Institute for Civility in Government.

Civility Linkblogging: Reddit, West Virginia, California, and NYC Subways

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 brings two very interesting developments. The first is a pair of articles — one from The New York Times and one from The Chicago Tribune, about the aftermath of Ellen Pao’s resignation as CEO of Reddit, and what it portends for the state of civility on the popular website and around the Internet more broadly.

The second is a photo essay by Luis Tsukayama Cisneros, sociologist at The New School for Social Research, about the formation of community and civility on New York City subways.

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

Now — the list:

Mingo Woman Starts Campaign Encouraging Civility
Posted by Marcus Constantino at The Charleston Gazette-Mail, July 15, 2015

Teresa McCune said the Campaign for Civility is aimed at fostering behaviors “founded upon the fundamental dignity and worth of all our community members and to creating a climate that is characterized by respect for each other.”

She said she wants to give people the opportunity to express their opinions and work toward solutions in a civil, respectful way, and she wants to encourage small acts of kindness that can make a difference in people’s lives.

Online Trolls Winning Battles, but War of Civility Left to Wage
Posted by Mary Schmich at The Chicago Tribune, July 19, 2015

Some people say Ellen Pao wasn’t a good CEO at Reddit, and that’s not just the trolls talking. True or not, her job performance doesn’t matter in this regard.

What matters is her message: Online harassment, wherever and however it occurs, is wrong.

What matters is that people at the top of the Internet power structure see that and say it.

If every top manager at every media and Internet company had the experience Pao just had, of being widely vilified online, they’d work harder at figuring out how to keep the trolls from winning.

Who Would Take Issue with Request for Civility? COLAB, For One
Posted by Tom Fulks at SanLuisObispo.com, July 19, 2015

Supervisors recently voted unanimously to adopt a symbolic resolution doing nothing more than asking people to be nice and stay on topic when addressing elected bodies. Who could object to that?

The Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, of course. COLAB — a front group for developers masquerading as farmers — seemed particularly affronted by the LWV’s suggestion that relevance and civility are worthy ideals….

My old pal Dewd MacDougal likens them to recidivist gas passers. It’s usually the offender who first raises the odious alarm, attempting to deflect blame, he says.

“The smeller’s almost always the feller,” Dewd often says.

I can’t disagree.

When the Internet’s ‘Moderators’ Are Anything But
Posted by Adrian Chen at The New York Times, July 21, 2015

The moderator class has become so detached from its mediating role at Reddit that it no longer functions as a means of creating a harmonious community, let alone a profitable business. It has become an end in itself — a sort of moderatocracy in which the underlying logic of moderation has been turned on its head. Under the watch of its moderators, Reddit has become a haven for extremists: The Southern Poverty Law Center recently called it the new “home on the Internet” for white supremacists, and it also functions as the central organizing point for the dubious “men’s rights” movement….

Any attempt to enforce real-world norms is rejected by the moderatocracy as impinging on their absolute authority over their miniature domains. Even before the revolt, Ellen Pao sparked much consternation by instituting an anti-harassment policy and banning a handful of subreddits with particularly vile content — Redditors nicknamed her Chairman Pao. Ohanian has excused Reddit’s underbelly as an inevitable result of human nature. But Reddit has made a strategic choice to abdicate responsibility to the moderatocracy in exchange for the promise of meteoric growth, even if its new chief executive, Steve Huffman, recently vowed to crack down on the worst subreddits.

Between Personal Stories and the City: Civility in New York City Subways
Posted by Luis Tsukayama Cisneros at Culture: The Unintended Consequences of Looking Sideways

Co-presence (being at the same time in the same space) of people is important for civility to exist because culture and meanings are never static, they are created in interaction between individuals (Goffmann 1966, Mead 1934, Berger and Luckmann 1966). But even when there are no direct interactions between individuals there can be a consciousness, a realization, that there are people one sees everyday in the subway who are going through same situations as us and similar lives to ours. People create the social world together, but this creation is based on how we understand it in our consciousness (Schutz 1967). Civility is based not only in the actions of people, but also in how people perceive and understand themselves phenomenologically within a society. Likewise, civility is not necessarily dependent on interaction between individuals, but rather, contact (Delaney 1999) and acknowledgment.

Finding Civility amid Tragedy and Polarization in Israel

Town of Duma, in The West Bank

By NordNordWest, via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed CC-BY-SA.

This past summer – and especially the last few weeks – have seen several pieces of news come out of Israel that are disturbing, and that deserve further consideration as we think about civility. And in a recent blog post for The Times of Israel titled Condemnation is Not Enough. We Need Change, author Sarah Tuttle-Singer does just that.

On July 31st, in the West Bank town of Duma, a Palestinian toddler was killed and three members of his family were injured in a deadly arson attack perpetrated by Israeli settlers in the disputed territory. According to The New York Times, the child killed was eighteen-month-old Ali Dawabsheh and his parents are Saad, 32 and Riham, 27 (who was was still on fire when neighbors came on the scene). Hebrew graffiti was sprayed nearby reading Revenge, and accompanied by a Star of David.

Meanwhile, not two months earlier, The Times of Israel ran a story about a poll of Israeli and Palestinian teenagers conducted by the Rafi Smith Institute that found that:

Forty-five percent of Jewish teens said they were not prepared to sit in the same classroom with Arab classmates, while 39% of Arab students said the same of their Jewish peers.

The poll also found that only 28% of Jewish respondents said they condemned so-called price tag attacks associated with religious, far-right Jewish groups. Price tag attacks, writes The Times of Israel, are incidents of violence or vandalism like the arson in Duma that target Palestinians or Israeli security forces as payback for actions against the settlement enterprise.

This all points toward what seems to be an increased tolerance for violence as a problem-solving tool among Israeli youth. And it points toward a cause that seems particularly relevant to the question of civility: increased polarization brought about by a breakdown in communication.

Responses to the Duma attack have been sincere condemnation across the board. As The Jerusalem Post reports, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he was shocked over this reprehensible and horrific act, and called it an act of terrorism in every respect.

But as Sarah Tuttle-Singer tells us so passionately, it is no longer enough to condemn these attacks. It is not even enough to seek the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

In her Times of Israel blog post, Tuttle-Singer looks at the incident in Duma, and looks at the type of polarization indicated by the Rafi Smith Institute poll, and calls for a kind of radical civility that starts from below. She says – rightly – that hate is a learned behavior. And she says that the best solution to hate is for us – and especially our children – never to learn it at all.

The good news, she says, is that Israeli schools don’t teach hate. But leaving it at that is inadequate: Our kids grow up separated from Arabs, and all they learn is what they’ll see on TV when there’s a war. It’s disheartening, and dehumanizing, and it needs to be remedied.

Overcoming hate, Tuttle-Singer writes, means building bridges of communication and finding sameness amid difference. It means Israeli children having:

a real opportunity to meet Arab kids — kids who may pray differently, but who probably enjoy the same snacks. Kids whose first words were in a different language, but probably love swimming in the same big blue sea. Kids who may be shy at first — as my kids will be, too — but who will find common ground because kids always do when given that chance.

Specifically, what Tuttle-Singer calls for is action, not reaction – mandatory programs that require Israelis and Palestinians to get to know one another in a safe environment, where trust begins.

But what she is calling for in a more abstract sense is a kind of civility that privileges dialog across difference, and the ability to acknowledge cultural diversity while embracing, too, the idea that beneath it all, there is more about us that is the same than is alien.

Children, Tuttle-Singer implies, understand the polarizing consequences of longterm political disputes even before they understand the causes. And by inoculating children with a sense that the other side is alive, and human, and just trying to make their way in the world, we prepare them to tackle those disputes without embracing the hatred that has become their baggage and their legacy.

This simple idea of finding common humanity through dialog is good not just for children but for adults, too. And no less than in Israel, it can teach us here in the United States a thing or two about how to do civility right.

Institute’s Civility Definition in The Grand Forks Herald

Using the Institute’s language of civility, an opinion piece this week at The Grand Forks Herald takes on the ongoing mascot controversy at the University of North Dakota.

In 2012, the North Dakota Board of Higher Education ordered the university to replace its former nickname and mascot – The Fighting Sioux – with an alternative that conforms to NCAA rules prohibiting the use of Native American mascots, nicknames and imagery in their intercollegiate athletic programs.

As per the Board of Higher Education’s directive, the university has been without a mascot for three years. And now in 2015, as the university endeavors to choose a new mascot, the process has been fraught.

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The furor, writes Korrie Wenzel, author of the article in question, recently reached its zenith, flamed by news that the nickname committee had decided to move forward with several nickname choices. It has suggested the Fighting Hawks, Nodaks, North Stars, Roughriders and Sundogs. In the wake of a backlash, the committee reversed those recommendations. And both the recommendations and the reversal, Wenzel writes, make us realize this issue may become more venomous in the coming weeks and months.

Facebook comments on one recent article about the debate had to be removed due to profanity or general name-calling. Several comments resorted to insulting the writer. And according to Wenzel, one reader canceled his Herald subscription, even though an opinion column representing the other point of view appeared on the same page.

The solution, writes Korrie Wenzel, lies in civility. In his article, he includes the Institute’s definition of the concept. That:

Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.

And then he quotes the Institute’s explanation of the definition at length:

Civility is about more than just politeness, although politeness is a necessary first step. It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. Civility is the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. It is political in the sense that it is a necessary prerequisite for civic action. But it is political, too, in the sense that it is about negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone’s voice is heard and nobody’s is ignored.

Wenzel writes that civility in this sense is a sound concept in the context of the mascot controversy, and that it’s particularly important to to remember this as we hear the nasty comments that arise.

He laments the idea that North Dakotans are airing their dirty laundry in public, and tarnishing their reputation for being North Dakota Nice.

And he says that while vigorous debate is important – while it is key to coming to a sound conclusion on the mascot issue – it must be done respectfully. We urge civility and respect, writes Korrie Wenzel. We urge some sense of decorum. We can be so much better than this.

Civility and Privileged Distress

Civility and Privileged DistressKnow thyself, reads the ancient Greek aphorism. And in light of our recent post about the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality, that aphorism seems particularly relevant. Part of civility – undoubtedly – is about listening to and taking seriously the positions of people with whom we disagree. If the purpose of a discussion is to solve problems rather than score points, we all win. But part of civility, too, is about self-examination. It’s about understanding our motivations and our position in society. If we don’t know where we are coming from and why it is we want what we want, even the most civil negotiation will be of limited use.

So with that in mind, I’d like to point you all to a 2012 blog post by Doug Muder of The Weekly Sift. The post is a little old, and it definitely comes from one particular position along the ideological spectrum of American politics. But it introduces an important concept, privileged distress, that is key for folks who are interested in civility to understand.

To explain privileged distress, Muder points us at the film Pleasantville. In the film, he writes, George Parker is a TV father and the patriarch of a perfect fifties family. He returns from work at night to a smiling wife, adorable children, and dinner on the table. And when one day that doesn’t happen, he is confused, and sad, and feels that the universe has gone awry. Muder writes:

I’m not bringing this up just to discuss old movies. As the culture evolves, people who benefited from the old ways invariably see themselves as victims of change. The world used to fit them like a glove, but it no longer does. Increasingly, they find themselves in unfamiliar situations that feel unfair or even unsafe. Their concerns used to take center stage, but now they must compete with the formerly invisible concerns of others.

This is the essence of privileged distress. George Parker is the biggest player in his patriarchal universe. Whether he knows it or not, he benefits from immense privilege. And on the day that patriarchy – at least as he understands it – goes away, he feels that loss acutely. The world changes around him. His position relative to his family changes. And it’s a change that is legitimately scary – one about which he is right to be concerned.

The thing is, though, that the reason it’s all so scary is that what has come before the change – the patriarchy – doesn’t read to George Parker as privilege. It just reads as normal, as the thing he’s known his whole life. So when dinner isn’t on the table when he returns home from work, and when he isn’t greeted by his wife and children at the door, he perceives this as injustice. Injustice is being done to George Parker in that he had been at the top of the social food chain, and now he must contend with being merely an equal.

As Doug Muder says, the distress of the George Parkers of the world is real. It’s painful, and we need to listen to it and acknowledge it.

But even as we accept the reality of George’s privileged-white-male distress, we need to hold on to the understanding that the less privileged citizens of Pleasantville are distressed in an entirely different way…. George deserves compassion, but his until-recently-ideal housewife Betty Parker (and the other characters assigned subservient roles) deserves justice. George and Betty’s claims are not equivalent, and if we treat them the same way, we do Betty an injustice.

This is where we return to the idea of self-knowledge as a key component of civility. As we interact with the people around us, we need to understand the power gradients in which we exist. We need to figure out to what degree, when we feel slighted, we are like George Parker who just wants his dinner. And we need to figure out to what degree we are like Betty who has been living in some sense as a servant for most of her adult life.

Both positions are legitimate. In both cases, we have something real for which to negotiate. But both positions don’t necessarily have equal import. And knowing how much ground we have to give as we advocate for our identity needs and beliefs – knowing the point at which our needs start to degrade someone else’s – depends on understanding our own privilege. If we’re already George Parker in a given situation, we may have a great deal more leeway to make concessions than if we’re Betty.

Returning to what I wrote the other week about the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling, this is key to the idea of negotiating by listening. I wrote in that post that it’s time for uncivil progressives to take a break from sneering at religious freedom arguments; and that it’s time for uncivil social conservatives to stop dismissing claims from same sex couples that what they want is only what everybody else already has. Self knowledge and an understanding of this concept of privileged distress is a good way to do that. All sides at the negotiating table need to understand where their privilege lies, and how the gradients of social power run.

Confronting those hard truths means asking ourselves whether my religious freedom is more important than your marriage. It means asking ourselves whether your pain at a changing social landscape can be legitimate, and not just a selfish affront to my impending happiness. And it means asking ourselves whether – if we can give up on the idea of our own privilege – our needs and beliefs are really in conflict at all.

There’s no definite answer to any of these things. But this is one means by which we can approach a discussion of the marriage equality ruling that has the potential to yield more than just hurt feelings. Being honest with ourselves is how we can be honest about our needs as we interact with others. And doing that gives us the best chance to come away from a discussion with a sense that we’ve accomplished something worthwhile.

Civility Linkblogging: Marriage Equality, Classroom Management, and Social Media

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, look out for two main issues: how civility can (and does) enhance discussions about marriage equality and gay rights in general, and civility as a tool for classroom management. In the days surrounding the recent Supreme Court marriage legalizing same-sex marriage, we saw stories about how people on both sides of the issues have come together to have civil discussions, and we saw stories about public officials urging civility among their constituents. While outside of the United States, in the UK, we have an extended discussion by Scottish teacher and author Tom Bennett about the value of civility as a tool for modifying behavior in schools.

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

Now — the list:

On Same-Sex Marriage, Finding Civility but Not Common Ground
By Emily Cadei, at Newsweek, June 24, 2014

Yet even as they prepare to do battle on the policy front, both Red Wing and Vander Plaats plan to continue their dialogue, both publicly and privately. Several more public events are tentatively slated for this fall. Vander Plaats hopes it can demonstrate, to politicians and the public, alike that civility is not the same thing as conceding to the other side: “What they’re going to find is we’re not leaving our beliefs.” He’s also encouraging members of his evangelical community to do similar outreach with those on the other side of a particular issue.

Still, they’re just two voices in a cacophony of political campaigns, Super PACs and talking heads that have converged on the state in the advance of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses next February. “As we get more and more into this presidential political caucus time, can Bob and I on some level help de-escalate some of the anger, some of the aggressiveness and animosity” of campaign season? Red Wing wonders. “I don’t know.”

Indiana Attorney General Urges Civility, Respect for Marriage Ruling
Posted at the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, June 26, 2015

Indiana’s attorney general is asking residents to treat each other with civility and show respect for the U.S. Supreme Court following its ruling requiring all states to recognize same-sex marriage.

Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in a statement Friday that the court’s 5-4 decision won’t change much in Indiana because the state has allowed same-sex marriage since last year.

We Need to Help Children Develop Habits of Civility and Learning that Last Them a Lifetime
By Tom Bennett, at TES Magazine, June 26, 2015

I’ve worked with new teachers for years on this. I’ve run behaviour management forums for most of my career, and I’ve heard thousands of problems from year after year of teachers. I’ve visited well over 100 schools in my career, and the challenges are often the same: many staff don’t feel trained to handle behaviour, schools often lack clear and effective systems to manage behaviour and many senior staff are unsure how to create a system that works for all parties. This is too important to get wrong. …

Everyone wants a magic bullet intervention that costs little and raises attainment. Well, here it is: make sure every teacher is trained to run a room; make sure every leader and manager is trained to design systems that support behaviours that focus on the common good. Tweak those coordinates early enough in the career of every educator, and watch the lessons land.

Has Civility Lost Its Way on Social Media?
By Kathi Kruse, at Kruse Control, Inc., June 29, 2015

Has Civility Lost Its Way on Social Media? Or is social media just a reflection of a much bigger issue? Have we lost our way as a culture, where civility towards our fellow sentient beings has diminished to the point of no return?

After observing this situation for awhile now, I realize that some of it is simply people reacting. But reactionary behavior makes it easy to lose control of one’s faculties and good judgment. Things can get so bad that the concept of “think before you post” doesn’t even enter into your consciousness.

Make no mistake, misdirected anger and social media do not mix well.

Local League of Women Voters Aims for Civility at Public Meetings
By David Sneed, at SanLuisObispo.com, July 2, 2015

The nonpartisan group has been working on this subject for the past two years but has made it their main focus this year. On Tuesday, county supervisors will consider adopting a resolution by the group promoting civility in conducting business with elected officials, county staff and the public.

“This is not a whim; this is a passion,” said Marilee Hyman, immediate past president of the League. “Civil discourse is necessary to make democracy work.”

Supervisors are expected to approve the resolution. Last year, they voted unanimously to give a $1,800 grant to the League to fund its civil discourse campaign.

Marriage Equality, Suspicion, and Insular Thinking

A fair amount of uncivil discourse has passed through the American public sphere since the end of June when, in their decision on Obergefell vs Hodges, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex.

Ken Paxton, Attorney General of Texas, almost immediately released a non-binding legal opinion which, according to Robert Garrett of The Dallas Morning News, stated that clerks could refuse on First Amendment grounds to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because, as he says, of their religious objections. Paxton added in a press release that there are numerous lawyers who stand ready to assist clerks defending their religious beliefs, in many cases on a pro-bono basis, and that his office, too, stands in defense of their rights.

And Ken Paxton is not alone. In Tennessee, the beginning of July saw the entire staff of the county clerk’s office of Decatur County resign on religious grounds. In Nebraska, Sioux County clerk Michelle Zimmerman said that she will deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples because her religious beliefs prevent her from complying with the law. And in Kentucky, county clerk Casey Davis has called on the state legislature to pass a new law allowing couples to purchase marriage licenses online, so as not to have to violate his religious beliefs by issuing the licenses himself.

These cases in themselves are not inherently uncivil. Freedom of religion is a fundamental right in the United States, and it certainly seems worth having a frank conversation about how to implement this change in the interpretation of the law while respecting, to the greatest degree possible, everybody’s interests.

But in practice, these cases and the discourse that surrounds them are a perfect example of the kind of incivility that is born of a breakdown of communication. All parties are so busy talking to their ideological in-group, and so busy indulging their ideological in-group’s preconceived notions, that nobody can hear the other side speak.

And so when social conservatives over the past several weeks have stood up for religious freedom, too often pro-gay marriage factions have jumped to the least generous possible conclusions. And conservatives have jumped to that same ungenerous place when progressives have celebrated what seems very much like an affirmation of their identity, needs and beliefs.

To see the kind of vitriol this produces, one needs only look at the blanket accusations of bigotry bandied about on Twitter by folks who support the Obergefell ruling.

"Bigot homophobe Texas Attourney General @KenPaxtonTX looks like he might have some personal problems."

"Bigot Brownback Issues Order to Protect Religious Liberty After SCOTUS Ruling"

"Religious liberty does not include being a bigot! New battle for same sex marriage erupts in Texas."

"My hatred of people using religion as their reasoning for being against same-sex marriage is at an all-time high. YOU'RE A BIGOT."

And one needs only look at the kinds of suspicious discourses bandied about by Obergefell opponents. According to The Daily Caller, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal called the Supreme Court completely out of control, and said that the Obergefell decision amounted to an affront to God, country, and political affiliation. Hillary Clinton and The Left will now mount an all-out assault on Religious Freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment, Jindal opined.

While in his dissent on the case (pdf), Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito falls into the slippery slope fallacy, writing that the ruling will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy, and that those who cling to old beliefs will be relegated to whispering their thoughts in the recesses of their own homes for fear of public persecution.

The sad part about it is that each side seems to be proving the other right. Alito worries that opponents of gay marriage risk being labeled as bigots for their views, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen on Twitter. While progressives fear that resistance to the Supreme Court’s ruling is born of narrow-mindedness, and we’ve seen plenty of that, too. When former Arkansas governor and current presidential candidate Mike Huckabee says that legalization of same-sex marriage would lead to the “criminalization of Christianity,” and that the country “must resist and reject judicial tyranny,” what else should supporters of marriage equality think?

A solution to this – if in fact we collectively want one – exists in reconsidering the purpose of speech. Is the goal of public discourse merely political in the lowest sense of the word? Is it meant to score points, secure donors, and collect votes with the hope of getting elected the next time around? If so – if we want only to talk to the people who already agree with us – then the status quo works fine.

But if Ken Paxton and county clerks around the country are sincere in their concerns, and if a significant portion of the citizenry of the United States feels that their religious freedom is being trampled on by the Obergefell ruling, then speech might have to mean something broader: it might have to mean being quiet and listening, too.

For those of us who work on civility, the Institute’s definition of the term – that is, claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process – is almost a mantra: words repeated by rote, filled as much with ritual meaning as with relevant content.

But the Institute’s definition is certainly relevant here.

It’s time for uncivil progressives to take a break from sneering at social conservatives who look at the Bible, or the weight of history, and decide that same sex marriage really has no precedent. And it’s time for uncivil social conservatives to stop dismissing claims from same sex couples that what they want is only what everybody else already has. If we read beyond the insularity and fear, what both sides are expressing is that they want to have their identity, needs, and beliefs respected and protected by law. And through civil discussion – the sort of discussion where every party comes to the table honest about its desires and motivations – a solution where all sides can get what they want is far from beyond the realm of what’s possible.

Civility Linkblogging: Violence, Economists, and Jack Lew

Civility Linkblogging

A Lynx, because Linkblogging

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

This week’s post centers around issues of civility in how we respond to violence. In addition to a piece about civil responses to June’s church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, we include a discussion about civility in activism responding to the Tamir Rice police shooting in Cleveland, Ohio. And we include a piece about balancing one’s own needs and beliefs with the needs and beliefs of others when it comes to open carry gun laws.

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

Now — the list:

Man With Rifle Scares at Airport: How Important Is Civility to Open-Carry?
Posted by Patrik Jonsson at The Christian Science Monitor, June 6, 2015

Indeed, as Texas is set to become the largest state to allow open carry, the evolution of the practice encompasses not just gun rights, but shifting notions around self-defense and even growing insecurities for many blue-collar, white men in America, some of whom see gun carry as central to “duty, relevance, even dignity,” as Jennifer Carlson, a gun rights scholar, writes in the Los Angeles Times.

“Yes, gun owners can do this, and maybe it does some good by raising awareness that this is the law,” says Brian Anse Patrick, a University of Toledo communications professor and author of the upcoming book “PropaGUNda.” “But there’s still this funny area around etiquette and frightening people” that draws a line between “Second Amendment ambassadors and Second Amendment exhibitionists.”

In Peaceful Protests over Police Verdict, Cleveland Has Just Seen Values in Action
Posted by Patricia Frost-Books, Kim Richards, and Ratanjit S. Sondhe at Cleveland.com, June 7, 2015

Just after Tamir Rice’s death, some leaders sought to squelch the public dialogue, pushing it behind closed doors or within favored institutions with specific agendas. Thoughtful people pushed back on this idea. It never happened.

Instead, there were listening tours, community meetings, congregational meetings, street meetings and school meetings. Rage was vented. Pastors and organizations recommended changes to the mayor and the U.S. attorney. Gov. John Kasich created a diverse task force on police conduct. Police allowed demonstrators to yell at them. They responded calmly — civilly. Dialogue ensued. It was messy at times, but people were heard….

How we each strive to be a part of that solution is key. Are we a community of silos and self-interest that ignores our oneness? Or do we become a community of values, one that models kindness, caring and respect and enables success?

Don’t Squander Opportunities for Real Debate by Heckling
Posted by Elihu D. Stone at The Jerusalem Post, June 10, 2015

It is uncomfortable being booed off of a stage for merely voicing an opinion or articulating an idea. It can even be uncomfortable to watch someone else get booed off a stage. All other things being equal, common decency and decorum would seem to demand that anyone invited to speak at a diplomatic conference who politely voices a democratically elected administration’s policy deserves at least respectful silence while speaking.

However, US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was not accorded that courtesy this week at the annual Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference – and that has some people feeling very uncomfortable.

Civility Breaks Out Among Econ Wonks
Posted by Noah Smith at Bloomberg View, June 19, 2015

I’ve started to notice a funny thing in the last two years, in the blogosphere and on Twitter. There is a lot more agreement than before, and the discourse on economic issues is a lot less poisonous.

This will come as a surprise to people who follow Twitter and blogs. These have been the years of Ferguson and Eric Garner, of GamerGate, of the Rolling Stone rape story. The cultural battles around race, gender and identity rage unabated, and the flames are fanned by vicious anonymous provocateurs.

But in the economics and policy world, the winds have begun to shift. A new atmosphere of comity, patience and rationalism is prevailing, and it’s breaking down barriers between liberals and conservatives, interventionists and free-marketers.

Civil Behavior Abounds in Response to Tragedy
Posted by Carolyn Lukensmeyer at The Huffington Post, June 22, 2015

The tragedy last week in Charleston, S.C., in which nine people were murdered, has evoked a local, state and national response bathed in civility. In fact, what we have witnessed since the shooting on June 16, sets an example for the nation of the hope and promise that can come from collective demonstrations of civil behavior….

Just days after the shooting, the families of the nine individuals who were murdered offered up a vital lesson for the nation on the power of civility. Roof appeared on screen at the bond hearing and, one-by- one, family members spoke directly to him on screen, forgiving him for what he did. To a person, these individuals, who spoke from places within of deep pain, abounding grief, offered prayers for Roof’s soul and forgiveness for what he did.