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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Will things ever get better?”

 

“What has this country come to?”

“There is no hope.”

 

“My vote does not count.”

 

“Why even care about what is going on?”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 

Let’s Play Ball!

A Fictional Adaptation of Tribalism in Politics in the United States

by Mea Ayers

 

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

***

“Aha!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They never found any proof!” Jamie screams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Antonin Scalia’s Indelicate Brand of Civility

Justice Antonin Scalia
Photo by Stephen Masker, CC-BY

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died unexpectedly this past Saturday, is not someone whose name we usually associate with civility. Reflecting on his life for The New York Times, Bruce Allan Murphy, law professor and author of Scalia: A Court of One, writes that he changed the United States Supreme Court… more than President Ronald Reagan could ever have foreseen when appointing him. And he writes about the importance of his advocacy of “originalism” and “textualism” – the theories that judges should decide cases according to the “public meaning” of the words in the Constitution or its Amendments as understood by the American people in the state constitutional ratifying conventions.

But as Scott Lemieux of The Guardian said on Sunday: as enormous as his influence on American jurisprudence and American public culture has been, Antonin Scalia’s legacy is in many ways one of polarization.

Scalia’s public persona was that of provocateur, and he was perhaps best known for being colorfully undiplomatic and eminently quotable. Sometimes his penchant for provocation ran toward the crass, like in 2012, when he was asked by a Princeton student about his moral judgment of homosexuality, and he responded: if we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder?

Sometimes his provocation turned personal, straying into the territory of ad hominem attacks. As Bruce Allan Murphy writes, he called Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s 1989 opinion in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services “irrational,” “totally perverse” and “not to be believed.” And he belittled Anthony Kennedy’s 1992 opinion in the Lee v. Weisman school graduation prayer case as “psychology practiced by amateurs” and “incoherent.”

But as often, he was wickedly incisive in his critiques. As in 2005 when, in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., he defended his judicial philosophy by dismissing the idea of moderation on the bench. We say we want moderate judges, Scalia told his audience [PDF], but:

What is a moderate interpretation of the text? Halfway between what it really means and what you’d like it to mean? There is no such thing as a moderate interpretation of the text. Would you ask a lawyer, “Draw me a moderate contract?” The only way the word has any meaning is if you are looking for someone to write a law, to write a constitution, rather than to interpret one.

Yet despite all his bluster – despite the decisions (and especially the dissents) that earned him a reputation as a warrior in the conservative cause – Scalia was in his own idiosyncratic way an advocate for a particular brand of civility.

In his dissenting opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges – the case that legalized same-sex marriage across the United States – he wrote [PDF] that the most unfortunate consequence of the majority opinion was that it shut down debate:

Public debate over same-sex marriage displayed American democracy at its best. Individuals on both sides of the issue passionately, but respectfully, attempted to persuade their fellow citizens to accept their views…. Win or lose, advocates for both sides continued pressing their cases, secure in the knowledge that an electoral loss can be negated by a later electoral win. That is exactly how our system of government is supposed to work.

Until, he said, the courts put a stop to it.

Whatever else readers may think about the case or the tenor debate in the states that led up to it, Scalia’s point here is fundamentally about civility. What he calls for, to paraphrase the Institute’s definition, is disagreement without disrespect, and negotiation in the face of deeply rooted and sometimes passionate differences of opinion. Policy-making is an adversarial process, he tells us. But it’s supposed to be that way. The point of civility is not to eliminate conflict in public life, but to make it bearable, productive, and as useful as possible for all parties.

This is something we see in other aspects of how he conducted himself. In a 2013 interview with Jennifer Senior in New York Magazine, Scalia talked about how he chose his clerks. His preference, he said, is for clerks whose predispositions are quite the opposite of mine — who are social liberals rather than social conservatives. The advantage of that, he said, is productive debate: that kind of clerk will always be looking for the chinks in my armor, for the mistakes I’ve made in my opinion. That’s what clerks are for — to make sure I don’t make mistakes.

And what’s true for he and his clerks is also true for the court as a whole. Writing about his loss, friend and fellow Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had this tribute:

When I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots — the ‘applesauce’ and ‘argle bargle’ — and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion.

And at the end of the day, as Scalia told Jennifer Senior, everybody I’ve served with on the Court I’ve regarded as a friend. Some were closer than others, but I didn’t consider myself an enemy of any of them. His approach to deliberation, in other words, is a reflection of his approach to public policy: adversarial and contentious, but conscious of avoiding the uncivil mistake of confusing opposition for enmity.

The fact of the matter is that, yes, Justice Antonin Scalia is a deeply polarizing figure in our polarized political landscape. In no small part because he was so colorful and so quotable, he is for many American progressives singularly villainous. And undoubtedly in part for that same reason, he is for many American conservatives singularly heroic.

But both of those characterizations miss the point of Scalia in this regard: as much as any political ideology, his commitment seems to have been to a process by which, through ardent but respectful disagreement, we come to decisions that are as thoroughly examined – and as well made – as they can possibly be.

His civility wasn’t the sort that manifested as politeness. But for all his penchant for provocation, we may be able to learn a thing or two about civility from Antonin Scalia.

Recent Poll Confirms: Civility Matters

AmacheChartWe here at the Institute all already knew it was true, but it’s confirmed: Americans do in fact care about civility. According to a recent poll conducted by communications firms Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, with KRC Research, the great majority of likely voters in the upcoming Presidential race say that they care about the civility of their candidates, and say that civility will make a difference in who they vote for when they go to the polls.

Ninety-three percent, in fact, say that a candidate’s tone or level of civility will be an important factor for them in the election. Of those, more than half report that it is a “very” important factor. And more than half also report that the civility of the race makes a difference in how enthusiastic they are about voting at all.

The poll shows some relatively small differences in results along party lines. Voters who identify as Democrats seem to be more emphatic about the importance of civility, with 61 percent reporting that it is “very” important, to Republican voters’ 44 percent. And voters who identify as Democrats seem to see the current tenor of the election as being slightly more uncivil than their Republican counterparts, with 60 percent reporting that this is the case, as opposed to 55 percent.

More interesting in this regard, however, is how members of each party perceive the civility of the other:

There is a noticeable split in their reaction to the presidential debates. Majorities in both parties view the Republican debates as generally uncivil but nearly two-thirds of Democrats see their own party’s debate as civil, while nearly half of Republicans say the Democrats’ debates have been uncivil.

The purported incivility of the Republican debates seems to boil down to one clear factor: the presence of Donald Trump. Members of both parties perceive Trump to be the least civil candidate in the Presidential race, with 79 percent reporting that this is the case.

But in terms of the Democratic debates, the cause of the split in perception is less clear. Voters may perceive Hillary Clinton as uncivil, but not nearly in the same numbers as Donald Trump.

One possible cause of this split is the type of implicit bias we’ve discussed here on the blog before. In December, we reported on a study by political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood that suggested that the system of political parties in the United States increasingly resembles a form of tribalism, where party affiliation bleeds into personal identity and affects seemingly non-political aspects of our lives like our perceptions of the sort of people who make appropriate friends, or even appropriate mates for our children.

Iyengar and Westwood used a computerized test to reveal embedded, unconscious partisan biases: that test-takers who identify as Republicans and conservatives 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.

This suggests a kind of blind-spot for politically engaged Americans – for the sort who identify themselves as likely to vote, and who follow the primary debates closely enough to have an opinion. Among people who fall into this category, it seems probable that partisans on the Democratic side would perceive their own debates as more civil than they actually are, while Republican partisans would perceive them to be less civil.

In terms of Republican debates, in other words, the perception of Trump as uncivil is enough to balance out implicit biases. While for perceptions of Democratic debates, implicit bias triumphs and the truth about their relative civility probably falls somewhere in the middle.

In any case, Weber Shandwick’s Civility in America study makes encouraging news for civility advocates, no matter their party preference. It suggests that Americans would largely be amenable to a shift in tone among candidates for public office. And with three quarters saying that the media has a responsibility to decrease incivility, it suggests that Americans would applaud a shift in tone among news organizations, too.

Nothing about this study offers a specific way forward to a different kind of political climate in the United States. But given just how pro-civility participants in this study seem to be, it does confirm what we at the Institute have been saying all along: that a way forward to a more civil politics is in fact within our means.

Five Civility Considerations for a Better Thanksgiving

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

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

Five Strategies for Thanksgiving Civility

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

Get acquainted with the 70/30 rule.

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

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

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

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

Consider the context for relatives’ beliefs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer is maybe, but probably not.

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

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

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

The personal is political, but maybe not at Thanksgiving.

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

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

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

Deescalate!

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.