Civility Blog

Seeking Positivity Through Times of Political Unrest: How to See the Glass Half Full By: Mea Ayers

No matter where you lie on the political spectrum – far left, far right, or somewhere in between – most Americans can acknowledge that we are in a time of great political unrest. Some may deny this, commenting that they are “perfectly fine with how things are,” and have “never been happier” with our political situation.

Google Dictionary defines unrest as “a state of dissatisfaction, disturbance, and agitation in a group of people, typically involving public demonstrations or disorder.” While not every member of our nation feels ‘agitated,’ it is hard to dispute the reality that there is, indeed, a sizable ‘group’ of the population that are ‘dissatisfied’ with the current government. We live in a day where ‘demonstrations’ taking the form of protests and marches fill our screens, and uncivil statements made by news anchors, colleagues, and neighbors fill our ears. With a rapidly growing lack of respect for people’s freedom to hold their own beliefs without scorn or reproach from someone they know, it is no coincidence that Merriam-Webster’s first example of unrest used in a sentence is “the country has experienced years of civil unrest”.

In a time where news stations have become all-out war zones and not even family reunions are safe-spaces, it is very easy to lose sight of optimism. Many people look at a time like this and say, “What could possibly be worse?” You have a once “trusted” friend who, after an election, has become your greatest “enemy” and critic. People in the government have been fired left and right, and the incessant arguing as to whether it was “the best thing” or “the worst thing” seems to follow you wherever you go. People are afraid to say whom they voted for, fearing that someone in their midst will see their beliefs as the work of pure evil.

So why bother? I have talked to many people lately who have told me that incivility, specifically in our news sector, has kept them from paying attention to the news at all. They would rather be kept in the dark from national news than know what is really occurring in our current political atmosphere. They would rather remain in blissful ignorance than feel victimized by their own TVs.

Our democracy is meant to be an inclusive process, something that truly takes all input into account as building blocks to make the United States into the best nation it can be. It is not meant to be the source of great divide, a series of coinciding cleavages that divide issue, after issue into separate channels that alienate entire sectors of our country.

All of this chaos and negative energy sadly commits more people to the “glass half empty club” day by day. People are more frequently asking and telling themselves hopeless utterings such as,

 

“Will things ever get better?”

 

“What has this country come to?”

“There is no hope.”

 

“My vote does not count.”

 

“Why even care about what is going on?”

 

Throughout history, there has always been one thing that saved us from our demise: hope. Hope isn’t just willing or thinking there is a possibility that things can get better. Hope is trudging down that tunnel when you don’t see a light at the end, when you don’t even know if there is an end.

If we all waited until the light at the end of our tunnel became visible, for our north star or our omen to show us that we were on the brink of something good, we would never be where we are today. Some of the greatest feats to be overcome in our history, such as African American rights, were all as a result of blind hope. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, still looked ahead towards a brighter and better future, even when things seemed bleak. When there was no hope, he created hope. When there was not a good future in sight, he willed there to be one.

I use Dr. King as an example for a specific reason. He held another quality that set him apart and made him successful: his civility. One thing that revolutionized Dr. King’s movement towards equality was his methodology. In a time of violence and war, Dr. King led the movement of peaceful protests. His silent sit-ins spoke many more words than one loud or patronizing statement could have ever made. In a time when things were far from civil, Dr. King discovered the large and crucial cooperation between productivity and civility.

Growing up, many people probably heard their moms mutter a thousand times “kill ‘em with kindness.” As a child, and even sometimes as an adult, such words seem dumb or simply untrue. In a moment of debate, it seems much easier and more productive to attack the other side with a low blow and hit them where it hurts. This is the world we live in. People have grown far too comfortable disrespectfully slandering their foe to delegitimize their claims. What these people don’t realize is that in doing so, their own claims lose legitimacy. While they may have a very viable solution to a very important problem, no amount of sweet-talking can cover up and restore the trust of constituencies into their lawmakers if they have seen them act uncivilly to another human being.

The future truly does lie in civility. If we hope to create a brighter and more efficient political future for later generations and ourselves, just as our founding fathers so desired, then we must posses two qualities: hope and civility.

First, we have to believe it can happen. I know it’s very easy to write off a problem policymakers are debating. You can lose hope thinking that  “there is no plausible way to fix this!” Maybe you feel that “the true bad effects of this problem will be long after I’m gone, so why does it matter?” If we just believe that when there is a will to fix a problem then there is a way solve it, we have successfully achieved the first step towards becoming more optimistic.

Secondly, you have to vote. I know this – somewhat – goes hand-in-hand with hope; your vote wouldn’t be truly authentic, if you didn’t hope or believe that one of the propositions could be a viable way to solve a problem. You also have to know that your vote counts. This can also be a hard thing to accept. How could your one, teeny-tiny vote possibly count or make a difference in a pool of millions if you are the only one that really cares about solving the problem and not just fulfilling a role on a partisan team? Just imagine a world in which every person truly believed that change was possible; each of those votes would be quite small, but together, they could make a tidal wave of difference.

Lastly, proceed with civility. There is no doubt we live in a world that constantly turns to violence over peace and incivility over civility. However, if there is anything our great leaders of change have shown us, it is that we are stronger together and stronger when we are kind. Incivility drives wedges through our society that truly keeps us from achieving our full potential. It prevents us from having an open mind to all ideas, maybe even the one that just may be the very change needed to make our world a better place.

 

The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.

~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 

Let’s Play Ball!

A Fictional Adaptation of Tribalism in Politics in the United States

by Mea Ayers

 

The bets are in. The Facebook posts are up, and the flags are out, lining the front yards. This is the day everyone has been waiting for. Countless hours of preparation and training paired with many days on the road have led to this built-up moment. First, there were the trials. Then, the lineup was released, and fans from every crevice of the nation – city and country, coastal and inland – began to anticipate what the future months would hold. Now, it’s here. The time has finally come! This is a day that will bring a great joy to many and a disappointing upset to an equal amount. This is the first day of the World Series… through the eyes Jenna and Todd Harrington.

***

“Aha!”

When she finally finds the mustard in the back corner of her fridge, Jenna looks down at her phone and realizes that fifteen minutes have passed. Fifteen minutes…

“It’s 12:07! The Party has already started!”

What could possibly be a better way to meet all your new neighbors than to host a pre-game barbecue? As she approaches the front door, Jenna sees through the window a crowd huddled around her husband in the front yard. She assumes the hot dogs must have been a hit!

She straightens her indigo sundress before opening the front door to make her way to the table covered in hotdogs. New York Yankees flags clad her front yard filled with guests. Could this day be more perfect? However, the closer she gets to the crowd, the more she begins to realize that the faces of her neighbors seem…far from pleasant.

That’s not casual conversing. No, that’s shouting! A crowd of angry neighbors is screaming. To whom and for what reason she does not know.

“Todd! What on earth is going on here?” She shouts.

It looks as if the hate is directed towards her husband, but she realizes he’s not the other person yelling. It’s the tall, young guy who lives on the corner lot in the small, red brick house. What’s his name? Joe, Jim, Justin? It’s something with a J, she thinks. She takes a look at the crowd and notices a color trend. Shades of red pop out in a broad range of attire from subtle red buttons to full red tracksuits and painted faces.

For the first time today, she takes a real look around her street. Somehow, she failed to realize that their flag is the only blue flag that lines the street – theirs, and the guy who lives on the corner, the guy who is yelling,

“You can’t rip down their flag! They have a right to have it there.” The man from the corner house shouts.

A middle aged man in a red jersey cackles before responding. “Right? Wow Jamie. You’re one to talk!”

A younger man wearing a ridiculous red morph suit pipes up. “The last thing we need is another person in the neighborhood supporting that team. One is already more than enough to handle.”

Laughs rattle throughout the crowd before the morph suit man’s wife takes the stage. “Yeah, Jamie. Everybody knows the Red Sox are the leading team around here. Their stats are good. Plus, they haven’t had the slip-ups your team has had. Need I mention the pitching scandal?”

“They never found any proof!” Jamie screams.

“Oh please. Everyone knows they’re to blame! I don’t care if there is proof. I don’t care if there isn’t proof. They should definitely be kicked out of the MLB!” The woman responds.

Jenna interjects. “Does anyone want a hot do—“

“WHY DON’T YOU JUST SHUT THE HELL UP Marsha.” Jamie interrupts. “Everyone knows you only spit back out the bullshit your husband feeds you. And he’s an oaf, for crying out loud. Everything he spouts is garbage anyway!”

“OH REALLY! I’m spitting up bullshit now am I. Why don’t I just go ahead and spit up some more!” Marsha takes a step forward and spits in Jamie’s face.

Jamie, seething, wipes his face with one hand and clenches the other into a fist. For a second, it looks to Jenna as if he is actually about to punch Marsha in the face. Feeling that it’s about high time to end this very… unpleasant soiree, Todd steps forward. “You know what, party’s over. Why don’t we all go back to our houses and enjoy the game there? Everyone can grab a hotdog to go. I think this way, things will be more…pleasant.”

The man in the morph suit grabs a hot dog, and proceeds to walk over towards Jamie to pat him on the back. “Have fun!” He says with a smirk. “Enjoy watching your team lose.”

“I’d rather see the whole stadium burn down than watch the Red Sox win. So you better hope they don’t or I’m going to raise hell!”
Dumbfounded by what they just witnessed, Todd and Jenna hastily grab their flag and tins of food and hurry inside. While Jenna prepares two places at the kitchen table, Todd flashes on the TV. A pack of men painted completely blue flash up on the screen

“The Red Sox Suck!” A man on the TV shouts.

Todd flashes the TV back off and makes his way over to the kitchen table. He and his wife sit across from each other, in silence, eating cold hot dogs.

Breaking the silence, Jenna finally speaks up. “I really don’t know what has become of this country.”

***

 

Visualize the two largest rival teams of any sport you can think of. Now, think about those two friends you know that if left in a room to discuss their teams together, the outcome would be a shouting match or brawl. This event is not so unique. Similar acts of uncivility occur all throughout the country between countless teams and people from all walks of life. Kids in middle school all the way up through senior citizens join in on the fight.

Now, pretend that the two “teams” you are visualizing are no longer for baseball, but for political parties instead. Visualize the banners decorating front yards as campaign signs and not flags. The analogy may be unconventional…but it works. We live in a tumultuous time for American politics, a time where people raise their voices and lose their civility. What does it say about our political culture that we can compare our politics to a temporarily consequential sports championship?

Many people can probably visualize a recent instance when a pleasant time was ruined by a political argument. Maybe you were having dinner at the in-laws’, travelling with your friends from the other side of the country, or just enjoying a street barbecue with your neighbors; maybe you didn’t physically witness this uncivility in person but were horrified by something remarked by a news anchor, pop-culture figure, or radio show host. Political incivility has no gender, no age, and no political alignment.

As social beings, we naturally gravitate towards groups, our “tribes” so to speak. It is very easy for us to associate with like-minded human beings, sharing in ideas and belief systems. It is also just as easy to lose sight of respect and bash those with beliefs contrary to our own. According to Psychology Today, this form tribalism in politics causes us to lose our ability to “admit the other side has a good idea because of our own egos, especially if we have publically criticized the other side and rallied for our side.”

While we may associate exclusively with groups that share our belief systems, let us not forget the tribe we are all a part of: The United States. It is OK to debate with others and perfectly fine to agree to disagree. However, when we value the well-being of our personal tribe over the well-being of the country as a whole, that is when we lose our civility. Civility demands, by name, a certain level of courtesy and politeness; it does not demand that we agree with others, but that we respect them and their well-being. When we remark in a manner such as the statement “I’d rather see the whole stadium burn down than watch the Red Sox win,” we are not only being uncivil to others, but to ourselves. We are all part of the “arena” that is this country, and we owe it to the common good of our national tribe to practice civility towards the people we share our home land with.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jimmy Kimmel’s “Lie Witness News”: A Testament to the Growing Unawareness and Incivility of American Voters

Mea Ayers is a high school senior from Houston, Texas who is serving as a guest blogger for the Institute this summer.

In today’s climate, entertainment opportunities seem endless. With bottomless content sources such as Youtube, Netflix, Yahoo, Hulu, and Google widely available to the public, one would think that global and political awareness would increase, right? While Americans are, no doubt, becoming more aware of some events, an online survey from Statista illustrates that only 37% of Americans utilize their internet access to “look for news and information about politics.”

In contrast, many of the nation’s younger citizens appear to occupy their screen time surfing the vast streaming sites that offer whole seasons of kitschy reality shows, the latest and greatest movies, and quarter-hour-long skits referred to as “vlogs.” While many of these videos offer nothing more than a good laugh, a new binge, or a calming antidote to a long day, some offer as many striking yet true insights as laughs. One comedic sketch periodically put on by the late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel is both humorous and alarming: it exposes the very nature of some of the voters that make up our democracy.

“Lie Witness News” sketches are comprised of two parts: one seemingly innocent yet absurdly false question and a group of American interviewees randomly selected off the streets of L.A. According to Time, Kimmel “repeatedly [gets an] unsuspecting passerby to reveal that they may not be as informed on a variety of topics as they think.” Topics range from Beauty Products to the Fourth of July all the way up through Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The objective of the game is simple: ask the general population about large (and untrue) current events, seeing how much they think they know.

With a title like “Lie Witness News,” one can only anticipate the embarrassing outcome of asking the public if they have heard about “the twitter war between Donald Trump and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” People offered input over the “controversy” of Dr. King failing to show up to President Trump’s Inauguration (an impossible feat) as well as Dr. King’s “Time on the ‘Celebrity Apprentice’” (simply untrue). Interviewed Americans were all too quick to comment on a modern social media fight that supposedly took place between the President of the United States and a revolutionary historical figure… who was assassinated during the 1960s.

Interview candidates also had interesting commentary on President Obama’s “planned 4th of July confederate flag burning with the last surviving Tuskegee Airman and the Wu Tang Clan.” One interviewee responded that he is “a little” excited and “will” be watching the supposed flag burning, while another reports that he has not only been discussing these 4th of July related “issues” with his friends, but “heard about [them] a month ago.”

While such responses from the public seem humorous on the surface, as one couldn’t possibly believe the California Governor decided to “reschedule the 4th of July to February,” the confidence of the public in their absurd answers proves slightly frightening in a nation that runs off of the rules of democracy and the expectation that every member of society adequately educate themselves on the local and federal political atmosphere.

Despite the obvious conflict of the growing unawareness of the American people presented by this seemingly harmless skit, another problem lies just beneath the surface. Interviewed candidates that chimed in on the debates of these supposed “incidents” were all too quick to take a side. When asked something slightly more important, such as “should Hillary Clinton be impeached,” each person fired back quickly with a definite side and slander on hand, despite that Hillary Clinton is not, in fact, the President.

One interviewee stated on Hillary Clinton’s Impeachment that “she should definitely be out.” When asked “on what crimes,” the same person responded with “I’m not a political person at all, so I really have no clue.” Such a response only highlights the tendency of Americans to polarize, whether they are informed or uninformed, simply for the sake of taking a side. Tendencies and aggression such as these are no doubt major factors that are contributing to the brutal political climate we live in today.

Perhaps the most striking information gathered from the last interviewee’s commentary is that they are “not a political person.” Arguably the main conflict confronting our American political culture today is that there are millions of people who feel they are “not political people” who still tightly grasp onto their partisan ideals. By adopting this belief about themselves, these people give themselves the false reassurance that they don’t need to actually carry out the procedures that every American should when it comes to politics.

While the future of our government is uncertain, one thing is for sure: we are all political people, whether we know it or not. By definition, a democracy is a political system involving a consensus by the whole population. Therefore, if it is a political institution involving everybody, then every person is a “political person.”

Proper participation in democracy calls us to not only actively participate (vote!), but to also use our newly abundant resources to do our research. It is all too easy to follow the ideals of our persuasive neighbors or go into a local election voting a straight ballot. Many would read these warning signs as early indications of an unsalvageable ship, something that is too far-gone and not worth our time. However, if “Lie Witness News” has shown us anything optimistic, it is that we do, indeed, have more access than ever to information with streaming websites and databases. Therefore we owe it to ourselves and our country to carve out a little time and do our research before making another comment on any current event. To us, it may only seem like a small task with a small return; however we will, with civility, be changing our political culture, one less lie at a time.

 

Finding Strength in Children

Lauren Cunningham is blogger and member of the Institute who is passionate about forming community and believes that our sense of community is vital in making meaningful strides toward the collective hopes and dreams we have for our children and their future. You can find more of her writing at Things I Teach My Children.

How daunting it is to raise children in a society so fraught with conflict. When our differences are more pronounced than our similarities and the future seems all too uncertain, it’s difficult to know how to guide our children toward their roles as responsible citizens amidst a bitterly divided nation.

In the face of great cultural and political divide, standards of civility have taken on an antiquated, if not controversial, status.

Those who wield political power and social influence are rewarded for abandoning all pretense of civility in favor of condescension and derogatory name-calling. This behavior is often reflected in our own day-to-day desire to prove our point and condemn our opponent. And all the while we are left wondering, in a collectively exhausted state, if rhetoric and dialogue which retain respect for our perceived opponents has any skin left in the game.

It’s easy to see how civil behavior is losing a popularity contest. When communities feel trampled upon or threatened, when people are made to feel belittled or forgotten, our natural reaction is to fight it out and defeat our opponent. If there is something for which we feel strongly, it may feel weak and superficial to be civil in our interactions with people who we believe are gravely wrong. It may even seem subservient to “their agenda”. Thus we assume the role of warrior in order to “combat” their presence in our society.

The thing is, when I look at my young children, I realize my job is not to raise combatants who rally against their neighbors. Rather, my responsibility is to raise civilians who tirelessly and peacefully strive to build a safe and just society for all.

However much I want my children to pursue justice, I cannot teach them that this pursuit entitles them to treat others uncivilly. In fact, despite the growing controversy surrounding this behavior, my children are taught that they must try to be civil. Always.

When engaging in any kind of social matter, I want my children to appeal to the best which is within themselves, as well as those with whom they disagree.

This commitment is not showing weakness, frailty or privilege, but rather an inner strength which holds that all people are created equal and thus deserving of a recognized inherent dignity. If I want my children to promote justice, I need to provide them with as much of this strength as humanly possible for the arduous task. The belief in the inherent dignity of all can provide a will to carry on when everything seems to be going against them.

Radical love, or radical justice, calls us to embrace a consistent code of civility. Consistency in its application to all humans, regardless of whether we believe they merit it or not, is to embrace true equality and a fervent belief in humanity’s ability to apply reason and intentionality to our words and actions. If what my children believe is good and true, then they need to employ all that is good and true to bring about this vision. Regardless of what they are facing, the strength of their positive message must be the victor, not their pride.

These days, my young children want retribution for every unfair thing that happens to them. An eye for an eye. But in teaching them that civility means laying aside the desire for self-gratifying retaliation, I hope to alleviate for them the exhausting and toxic cycle we now find ourselves in today. If we continue as we are, no one will have the last word or obtain reconciliation.

And though humanly impossible not to struggle with the urge to be uncivil, I hope that the majority of my children’s energy could be directed toward greater things.

They could rely on wit instead of vulgarity in advancing their beliefs.

They could use their knowledge instead of their biases to discuss the issues.

They could have the courage to listen instead of always having to prove a point.

And perhaps most radical of all, they could recognize that kindness does not negate truth, but often facilitates the conversion experience toward real and meaningful change.

So, I teach my children that strength lies in civility. And I know I’m not alone in teaching this.

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

Does civility matter? Yes it does.

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

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

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

So what happened? Civility did.

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

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

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

Civility Linkblogging: Pushing on the Limits of Civility

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

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

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

Civility in Government
Posted by David Rosenof at Sun-Sentinel.com, April 28, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now — the list:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Point Taken from PBS Offers Debate with a Side of Civility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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