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.

Four Logical Fallacies That Can Undermine Civility

Most of us, if we think of logical fallacies at all, remember them as some obscure concept from a years-old college rhetoric class, or as a list of stern don’ts given to us by a finger-wagging high-school English teacher bent on instilling in us the ‘right’ way to write an essay. Avoid these things, perhaps someone once threatened, or your grades will surely suffer.

But the thing is that logical fallacies are not actually errors in writing. They aren’t like bad grammar or unclear prose. They are errors in thinking – missteps in making an argument that lead us down the wrong path and cause us to draw bad conclusions.

Four Logical Fallacies That Can Undermine Civility

According to one definition, a logical fallacy occurs in an argument when the premises fail to logically support the conclusion. According to another, they are clearly defined error[s] in reasoning used to support or refute an argument, excluding simple unintended mistakes.

So what, you may ask, do logical fallacies have to do with civility? If you take as your premise (as we here at the Institute do) that civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process, then civility is in a sense a negotiation. You argue for what you need. I argue for what I need. And we meet somewhere in the middle – where neither of us gets everything we want, perhaps, but everybody gets something and all of us get respect.

To get trapped in a logical fallacy is to undermine that kind of civility. When we make bad arguments about why we want what we want, or when we make bad assumptions about why other members of our community want something different, we run the risk of disrespecting the other people with whom we are in dialog. We run the risk of dismissing others’ needs out of hand – or of overvaluing our own. And in doing so, we go from negotiation to hostage-taking. And all the civility runs out of the room.

So here below are four key logical fallacies to look out for. All of them are pernicious. All of them can undermine civility. And all of them (I say, and hope you don’t think I’m wagging my finger) should best be avoided.

Ad Hominem: This is the fallacy of attacking the author of an argument rather than the positions that they hold. It is probably the most common fallacy in American politics, and it is certainly the most pernicious. In 2008, for example, when a woman at a John McCain campaign event in Minnesota yelled out to the candidate that Obama is an Arab, that was an ad hominem attack. She meant it as an insult to Obama’s person, attacking him rather than the positions he stood for.

Ad hominem attacks undermine civility by making an argument personal. They suggest that because of who a person is (or who we perceive them to be), their positions don’t count and their voices don’t deserve to be heard. And by doing that, ad hominem attacks shut down communication.

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc: This is a fancy Latin name for a simple fallacy – the misconception that just because one event follows another, that first event is the cause of the second. It is the fallacy that tells us that because I touched a toad then got a wart, the toad must have caused the wart. Or it is the fallacy that tells us that just because there was a drop in crime when the state of Connecticut passed tougher gun laws in 2013, the gun laws caused the drop in crime. It’s possible that it is true, but without data to back it up, it’s simply bad reasoning.

The problem with this fallacy in terms of civility is that it can easily put us in the realm of misleading arguments. Should I support gun control based on a precedent that is no precedent at all? At best, post hoc, ergo propter hoc arguments undermine their proponents’ credibility. At worst, they are a convenient way to lie with data.

Hasty Generalization: This is the fallacy of jumping to conclusions without sufficient evidence. It is a matter of taking one or two instances of something and turning them into a trend. For example, if – just based on Rachel Dolezal – we argued that white people across the United States are trying to blur racial lines, or that they are regularly posing as black to gain some perceived advantage, that would be a hasty generalization fallacy. To see the error one needs only ask, as Jon Stewart asked: if being black is such a sweet deal, why are millions of white people ignoring such a sweet opportunity? The answer is because it is not in fact a trend.

The hasty generalization fallacy undermines civility because it leads us to draw poor conclusions about our own needs. It leads us to see problems where none necessarily exist. And by essentially crying wolf, we undermine our negotiating credibility.

Slippery Slope: This is the fallacy of assuming that just because we have taken one step down a given path, we are inextricably tied to that path. It is the alarmist fallacy that we see almost inevitably when a television talking head tells us that we’re doomed (doomed!). It is the fallacy, for example, that led some progressives to conclude in 2001 that just because the USA PATRIOT Act curtailed some civil liberties under some certain circumstances, the United States had undoubtedly boarded a slow train to fascism. The fact is that there is a wide gulf between even expanding surveillance programs and mid-twentieth century style totalitarian government. And taking just that first step does not necessarily mean we take the last.

Slippery slope arguments undermine civility specifically because of their alarmism. They tend to be born of fear, not due consideration. And like with the ad hominem attack, arguments from fear cut off communication rather than encouraging it.

The examples of logical fallacies here are perhaps a little heavy handed. If you look at the tenor of our public discourse, you’ll find these four – and probably many more – all over the place, and often lurking quietly and undetected. Beware. Logical fallacies can offer the comfortable illusion of a sound argument without any of its substance. And if our twin goals are civic engagement and mutual respect, that is a dangerous illusion indeed.

Civility Linkblogging: Home Runs, Japan, and Islam

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 highlights the possibilities of civility amid rivalry and disagreement. It features a piece about convicted civility — and how it can be enacted in the workplace. It covers the storied 1961 battle between Yankees Micky Mantle and Roger Maris to break Babe Ruth’s home-run record. And it highlights a kind of resolution between the seemingly conflicting values of free speech and civility, and the seemingly conflicting forces of Islam and the United States.

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:

The importance of Civility: What We Can Learn from Japan
Posted by Rob Walker at RN, 11 May, 2015

Civility was a determining factor in 2011 when we began to consider spending another year in Japan.

Back in Australia I’d noticed a further decline in civility, not just in schools but in society at large. Political discourse didn’t seem possible without personal insult anymore, whether it’s in parliament, on the radio or on the internet.

We returned to Japan in 2012, this time teaching senior high school and adult students.

For me there was a huge sense of relief.

Four Ways to Bring Convicted Civility Into The Workplace
Posted by Paul Jankowski at Forbes, 12 May, 2015

One of the most important places to exhibit convicted civility is in the workplace. This is where we spend the majority of our time and we need to invest in creating an atmosphere that fosters healthy, spirited debate. So what do you do when there is a disagreement? I’m not talking about a disagreement over what kind of coffee should be stocked in the office…but rather something that touches deeply on a person’s values, convictions and beliefs. How do you acknowledge a difference of opinion?

On Appreciation
Posted by Bea Larsen at Beyond Civility, May 15, 2015

Our need to be understood and appreciated goes to our very core. Yet, when in conflict with another, our need to project strength, not weakness, may obscure the importance of this human condition.

The M&M Boys: A Profile in Civility
Posted by Michael Beschloss at The New York Times, 22 May, 2015

Phil Pepe records in his 2011 book on the home run race, “1961*” (Triumph Books), that when Maris was booed, Mantle would joke, “Hey, Rog, thanks for taking my fans away.”

The two players laughed at stories that their contest had turned them into personal enemies. Mantle recalled that when Maris once brought the morning newspapers and coffee back to their apartment, he said, “Wake up, Mick, we’re fighting again!” Another time, when Mantle spotted a sportswriter next to Maris, he deliberately called out, “Maris, I hate your guts!” and the next day, the two men searched the papers to see if the reporter had succumbed to the ruse.

Free Speech and Civility in America and in Islam
Posted by Sarah Sayeed at The Huffington Post, 28 May, 2015

If we want Muslim societies to adopt democratic commitments to free speech, we must advocate and be role models of both free speech and civility, understanding that democracy requires both. Ultimately, we cannot advocate for free speech at the price of civility. If what is free speech to us is interpreted as hateful and uncivil to many Muslims in other parts of the world, we will be unable to effectively communicate the merits of free speech.

Building bridges with Muslims and paving the way for democracy will be easier when we leverage the similarity between Islam’s speech rules and America’s. The first word revealed to Prophet Muhammad is a command to “read,” which affirms the importance of reasoning and critical thought. The Quran instructs followers that diversity is created by God, in order that we learn from one another. “Shura” or mutual consultation, is a Quranic commandment, in both private and public realms, consistent with democratic practice. … These principles and practices support plurality of thought and free speech. They also provide a foundation for respectful debate about Islam and Muslims’ practice of their faith.

Institute Featured in Houston Chronicle Blog, The Peace Pastor

Last Sunday, the Institute and its definition of civility were featured in The Houston Chronicle as part of its ongoing blog series, The Peace Pastor, written by Marty Troyer of the Houston Mennonite church.

Troyer, writing about what we might perceive to be difficult conversations, tells us that there are two keys to preparing for such an encounter. First, he says, is to consider civility – that the point of any hard interaction must be claiming and caring for our identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. And second, that we must be self-differentiated – have the capacity to be yourself while remaining connected to your community.

This pair of important precepts, says Troyer, might better prepare us for the sorts of conversations that are necessary – even key – but that we might not feel ready to face. Like discussion of how faithful Christians should relate to our lesbian and gay friends and families.

We can, Troyer writes, humbly acknowledge our LGBT members and family have repeatedly stated that traditional non-affirming policies are dehumanizing and experienced as violence. We can accept that the LGBT community is statistically the most vulnerable to sexual abuse and overwhelmingly find non-affirming policies leave them with no other option but non-participation in the life of the church.

It needn’t change our opinions, he writes, but accepting that other people have values and needs that are important to them, even as ours are important to us, puts us in a position to open a dialog rather than end it.

What Troyer advocates here is a position close to Martin Marty and Richard Mouw’s notion of convicted civility. In an article for The Civility Blog last year, guest author John Backman wrote that convicted civility asks those of us with strong convictions to honor all others, seek their well-being, and hear their deepest convictions, particularly when we disagree.

And this is what Troyer is asking for here.

Troyer does not say that we must accept the needs, values, and opinions of others without reservation. He doesn’t say that we must bend to the will of others without regard for our own. What he says is that by first knowing our own minds, and then accepting that others know their minds too, we can do more to make sure that everybody’s needs are met.

We can maybe compromise a little bit on policy without compromising too much on integrity. And that’s a pretty good place to be.

The (In)Civility of Some Arizona Churches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civility Linkblogging: Balancing Civility and Free Speech

Civility Linkblogging

A Lynx, because Linkblogging

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

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

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

Now — the list:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polarization.

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

Civility and the Recent Nigerian Election

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

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

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

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

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

Nigeria

Nigeria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senator Susan Collins delivers the Margaret Chase Smith Public Affairs Lecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extreme Policy Positions: An Experiment

Back in February, we looked at some experimental data from political scientists Michael J. LaCour and Donald P. Green that offered insight into the less rational side of our political beliefs, and into the value of face-to-face conversations with the objects of our prejudices in moderating our positions and changing our minds. Taking the issue of gay marriage as a test case, their study, published in Science, concluded that a rational argument in favor of marriage equality, when combined with direct interaction with a flesh-and-blood gay activist, was the most effective route to changing minds – and to having those changes stick. And they concluded that the rational argument alone was inadequate to the task.

Today, we look at a different face of our less-than-rational political selves: unjustified confidence in our understanding of the issues. In a 2013 study published in Psychological Science, authors Philip M. Fernbach, Todd Rogers, Craig R. Fox, and Steven A. Sloman examine the mentality of extreme political beliefs, and some strategies for how they might be moderated, better opening the door to the possibility of compromise.

Extreme Policy Positions: An Experiment

Fernbach and his colleagues look at what they see as a connection between extremity of position and depth of understanding. They contend that when people are required to confront their relative ignorance on a given political issue, they become more likely to abandon their extreme position, and to embrace more moderate positions instead. People tend to have unjustified confidence in their understanding of policies, they write, and when they are asked – specifically – to explain those policies, the illusion of understanding evaporates and they become more open to other sorts of views.

To test this, the authors conducted three experiments. In the first, they asked participants to rate how well they thought they understood six hot-button political issues – issues like raising the retirement age for Social Security and imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran for their nuclear program. They asked the participants to provide explanations for the policies they claimed to support, and then, after that, re-rated both how well participants thought they understood the policies, and how extreme their positions were.

Across all six political issues, Fernbach and his colleagues found that asking people to explain how policies work decreased their reported understanding of those policies and led them to report more moderate attitudes toward those policies.

In their second experiment, the researchers sought to determine whether it was having to explain the policies specifically that moderated participants’ positions, or whether some other in-depth discussion – like enumerating reasons why they held the policy attitude they did – would be adequate. Here, they had half of their participants explain, and half enumerate their rationale. And what they found was that the latter was inadequate: enumerating reasons did not lead to any change in position extremity at all.

Finally, Ferbach and his colleagues’ third experiment tested whether increased moderation on political issues would lead to less material support for political figures and organizations that advocate for those extreme political positions. Participants were given the opportunity to donate money to organizations that supported their initial extreme position. And after asking participants to explain their position, what the researchers found was that, indeed, they were less likely to show that kind of material support.

From the perspective of civility, what is interesting about this study is less the increase in political moderation than the question of understanding. Civil discourse – the kind of discourse where I can claim my needs even as I recognize that you have valid needs, too – does not necessarily require that we hold middle-of-the-road views. But it does require understanding. It requires that we understand that there is more than one valid point of view on most political issues. And it requires that we understand – at least a little bit – the intricacies of the policy position we would like to see implemented.

In their conclusion, Fernbach and his fellow researchers write that:

Previous research has shown that intensively educating citizens can improve the quality of democratic decisions following collective deliberation and negotiation. One reason for the effectiveness of this strategy may be that educating citizens on how policies work moderates their attitudes, increasing their willingness to explore opposing views and to compromise.

And this is really the point. It matters less that we all moderate our attitudes than that we understand the policies on which we claim to hold such strong opinions. The more we understand, the more it becomes clear just how little we understand. And it is from that place – from a self-reflective acknowledgment of our own ignorance – that we can begin to see that our adversaries may have a point, and that their point of view may deserve serious consideration, too.