Implicit Bias, Political Identity

Earlier this month, Ezra Klein of wrote a disturbing article about the changing nature of Americans’ identification with political parties. In it, he looks at the results of a recent study by political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood, whose research suggests that party affiliation isn’t simply an expression of our disagreements on ideology or issues. Rather, it’s a matter of tribalism: the transformation of party affiliation into a form of personal identity that reaches into almost every aspect of our lives.

In their study, titled “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines,” Iyengar and Westwood write about [PDF] an increasing intrusion of partisan behaviors into aspects of everyday life that are not ordinarily coded as political. They cite “likes” and “follows” for social media accounts associated with Republican and Democratic political figures, as well as for partisan television news-analysis hosts from networks like FOX News and MSNBC. They cite studies that suggest that residential neighborhoods are becoming increasingly politically homogeneous, and that parents are increasingly likely to express displeasure over the prospects of their offspring marrying into a family with a different party affiliation.

Implicit Bias, Political Identity

In an interview that Klein conducted for his article at Vox, Iyengar says that it’s almost certainly not a matter of increasing ideological extremism among voters from one party or another. If you look at Americans’ positions on the issues, Iyengar says, they are much closer to the center than their elected representatives. And yet, Klein writes, since the 1980s, Republicans’ feelings towards the Democratic Party, and Democrats’ feelings towards the Republican Party, have dropped off a cliff.

In order to find out how this works, Iyengar and Westwood conducted two experiments. In one, they used mock scholarship applications to measure participants’ political and racial biases. They impaneled 1,021 people and asked them to choose between fictional high-school age applicants displaying four characteristics: Democrat, Republican, African American, and Euro American.

The result was that, more than any other factor, it was party cue that exerted the strongest impact on selection for the largest number of participants. Regardless of qualifications like GPA, and regardless of the factor of race, Democratic leaners showed a stronger preference for the Democratic candidate and Republican leaners showed the same – though somewhat less strongly – for the Republican candidate. Despite the fact that it was a non-partisan task, in other words, partisanship prevailed.

In the second experiment, they conducted what’s called an implicit association test with 2,000 participants. An implicit association test, Klein writes, measures the snap judgments your brain makes at speeds faster than conscious thought. Originally developed to measure racial bias, it requires the test taker to hit a letter on your keyboard when certain word and images flash together. And based on the speed of the response, it exposes the kinds of instant judgment we make before we have time to think.

Implicit Bias, Political Identity
Figure 2 of Iyengar and Westwood, “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization.”

The results of the implicit association test are much the same as in the scholarships experiment: people who identify as Republicans and people who identify as conservative both code things associated with the Republican Party as “good” and things associated with the Democratic Party as “bad”; while for Democrats and liberals, it is the inverse. The results suggest that it isn’t with the rational part of the mind – the part that responds to ideas and ideologies – that people make judgments. We make the judgments based on partisan biases, and then rationalize after the fact.

For Ezra Klein, the conclusion to be drawn from this is bleak: winning an argument, at least when you’re talking to co-partisans, is less about persuasion than about delegitimization. And for political candidates, it may not be worth campaigning across party lines at all. Like other forms of fandom – sports teams, for example – party and ideology have become powerful forms of personal identity. And this changes the playbook for the worse for cynical presidential candidates, policymakers, pundits, and anybody else looking to gain followers on the cheap.

But Klein’s conclusion isn’t the only way to read this data. One of the things that his article at Vox does is publish a version of the implicit association test that readers can take online. And this, when combined with the existing results, suggest a kind of opportunity.

Yes, according to Iyengar and Westwood’s study, American voters on the whole are plagued by what looks like the partisan version of racism: we’ve grown pretty strong biases against people and institutions we identify as being members of the out-group, and in favor of people and institutions we identify as being in our camp. But we also have the tools to reverse this trend. The fact is that the mechanism by which we make political decisions does not stop at our inborn biases. We have the capacity for rational decision-making, too. And now, understanding that bias is a fact, we can be alerted, rather than resigned, to its effect. And we can be vigilant about monitoring our decision-making processes more closely.

In other words: Iyengar and Westwood’s results can be seen not just as a sign of the times, but also as a call to action. And that’s what we here at the Institute would recommend. We would recommend that you, our readers, click through to take the implicit association test, and learn just how partisan you really are. And then use that data as a starting point to listen – really listen – to what candidates for political office are saying. It will certainly turn out that you disagree with many of the positions that candidates in the upcoming elections hold. But you may be surprised to learn that – adjusting for implicit bias – your disagreement across party lines is less uniform than you probably thought.

Ezra Klein isn’t wrong when he tells us that this sort of party identification is the stuff from which candidates generate loyalty. But it doesn’t have to be. What Iyengar and Westwood’s study does is expose the technique behind the trick. It gives us the means to opt out of partisan fandom.  We can opt out.  And by doing so, we can make better choices that, in the long run, may allow us to field better candidates, too.

Donald Trump, His Detractors, and the Rhetoric of Provocation

As we have previously stated, the Institute endorses no candidates and no policy positions. However, occasionally a political figure will say or do something that pertains to civility and deserves comment. Donald Trump’s recent proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States falls into this category, insofar as it is contrary to the spirit of open dialog and free expression that is necessary for the health of a vibrant pluralist society.

In a press release Monday, his campaign wrote that: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States. To the Associated Press, Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski clarified that this means not only immigration, but tourists seeking to enter the country. And Trump himself strongly implied that the ban would include Muslims who are U.S. citizens and travel outside of the country.

Beyond the fact that this plan would violate constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, Trump’s words have the effect of polarizing and provoking. They close, rather than open, avenues of civil dialog. And they have the potential to incite violence against a group that is already frequently the target of hate crimes in the United States. Just hours before Trump’s statement, for example, police and the FBI confirmed that they were investigating an incident in which a severed pig’s head was left outside of a mosque in North Philadelphia.

Several members of Trump’s political party have denounced his proposal. Jeb Bush offered a strong rebuke through Twitter. And, as CNN reports, state chairs of the Republican Party in New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina were critical as well. Matt Moore, the Republican chair in South Carolina, tweeted that we must remain vigilant about defending our inalienable rights, not attacking them when it’s politically convenient. And Jennifer Horn, head of the New Hampshire GOP, called the proposal “un-American” and “un-Republican.”

That said, there is a second strain of criticism being leveled against Donald Trump that is as unacceptable as the proposal itself. That is, what philosopher Leo Strauss in 1951 dubbed reductio ad Hitlerum. Reductio ad Hitlerum is a type of ad hominem logical fallacy that proposes that a person’s views, and therefore the person him- or herself, is like Hitler, a Nazi, a fascist, or the Nazi Party.

This was clear Monday when The Times of Israel ran an image with their story on Trump’s proposal of the candidate seemingly engaged in the Nazi salute. And it was clear this morning in the Philadelphia Daily News’s punning headline: “The New Furor.”

Donald Trump, His Detractors, and the Rhetoric of Provocation
Times of Israel, December 7, 2015


Donald Trump, His Detractors, and the Rhetoric of Provocation
Philadelphia Daily News, December 8, 2015

But the Nazi – or more generally fascist – comparison is not limited to images and three-word tags. Journalist Xeni Jardin, writing at, called Donald Trump a candidate for Führer of the United Fascist States of America. And an article at by Uzra Khan of the Harvard Kennedy School of Public Policy called this proposal, and earlier comments about tracking Muslim Americans, a set of ideas reeking of Nazism.

Finally, on social media, this meme has been circulating for the past twenty-four hours:

Donald Trump, His Detractors, and the Rhetoric of Provocation
The Institute obviously DOES NOT endorse any comparison of anybody, least of all Donald Trump, to Hitler.

The trouble with the reductio ad Hitlerum argument is almost precisely the same as the problem with Donald Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslim immigration: it is alarmist, overwrought, and privileges polarization and provocation over the sort of meaningful dialog that has a chance to disarm bigotry and lead to productive changes in policy and attitude alike. How can one respond to a comparison to Nazi Germany? With blanket denial, defensiveness, or an equally sweeping counter-attack. And none of those responses are useful.

The fact of the matter is that our attitudes toward and policies regarding immigration do require serious public scrutiny. Violence perpetrated by extremists of all creeds is currently an exigent problem in the United States. And America’s undercurrent of festering anti-Islamic sentiment does require open dialog if it’s ever to find resolution.

But when candidates for high office propose extreme measures, and when those proposals are met with disproportionate and ad hominem attacks, we cannot collectively do any of those things. To foster dialog, to resolve hate, and to countenance scrutiny, America needs the kind of safe space created through civility. And it is civility that these kinds of rhetorical tactics threaten, if not destroy.

Chris Christie’s Moment of Exemplary Civility

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

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

Well, it happened again this past week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Lives Matter, Presidential Candidates, Sit Down

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

Black Lives Matter, Presidential Campaigns, Sit Down
Photo by Tiffany Von Arnim, via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed CC-BY.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civility, Trust, and Gun Violence

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

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

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

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

Civility, Trust, and Gun Control

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

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

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

Civility, Trust, and Gun Violence
Image by FireflySixtySeven, via Wikimedia Commons — CC-BY-SA

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

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

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

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

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

Civility and the Filter Bubble

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

Civility and the Filter Bubble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civility and the Filter Bubble

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

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

Bernie Sanders in the Belly of the Beast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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.