Alec Baldwin, “Good-Bye, Public Life,” and Civility

From the EditorsOrdinarily, this is not a venue where — we hope — one expects to find celebrity news. But from the perspective of civility, Alec Baldwin’s new piece in New York Magazine, “Good-Bye, Public Life,” is worthy of special consideration. In it, Baldwin offers a firsthand account of the very real decline in civility when it comes to how we interact with public figures — with actors, members of the media, and politicians. While at the same time, he demonstrates the way in which incivility is virulent, taking root even — or perhaps especially — in the author himself.

Baldwin is most insightful when it comes to the adversarial stew that has him, in his words, done with it — with being a public figure beyond the work you are actually paid for. Now, he says, everyone has a camera in their pocket. It is a culture of predatory photographers and gossip sites where folks get paid to taunt you and catch you doing embarrassing things. It is a culture where anything good you do is tossed in a pit, and you are measured by who you are on your worst day.

What’s the Boy Scout code? Trustworthy. Loyal. Helpful. Friendly. Courteous. Kind. Obedient. Cheerful. Thrifty. Brave. Clean. Reverent. I might be all of those things, at certain moments. But people suspect that whatever good you do, you are faking. You’re that guy. You’re that guy that says this. There is a core of outlets that are pushing these stories out.

But though Baldwin eloquently diagnoses the problem, he cannot diagnose himself. And by turns, he propagates many of the uncivil discourses he decries, as well as some of those uncivil behaviors for which he, in his own words, has been vilified.

Baldwin is quick to publicize the shortcomings of others. Harvey Levin, founder of TMZ.com, has little regard for the truth. Rachel Maddow is a phony who doesn’t have the same passion for the truth off-camera that she seems to have on the air. Shia LeBeouf is sulky, resentful, and — in rehearsals for the play Orphansattacked me in front of everyone. And the liberal and conservative media are now precisely equivalent, at least insofar as they are both able to produce only tripe.

He is careless with his words. In the same breath that he laments having been labeled a homophobic bigot, he calls one person he met through an LGBT advocacy group in Hawaii an F-to-M tranny. This despite the fact that the term is widely regarded as offensive — equivalent to racial slurs used against people of color (for more consideration of the t word, see this piece in The Advocate, published just days before Baldwin’s).

And he is quick to believe that he is being wrongly persecuted. For him, journalists Andrew Sullivan and Anderson Cooper are the Gay Department of Justice, harrying him with the help of GLAAD and TMZ’s Harvey Levin for the mere crime of having made a series of actual anti-gay slurs, one of which may, according to Baldwin, have sounded like “faggot”—but wasn’t.

The issue with Baldwin’s essay is that even as it is implicitly a plea for civility, framed as an indictment of the increasingly toxic popular culture that is driving basically good guys like him away, it misses the civility mark itself. Baldwin is good at claiming and caring for his own identity, needs and beliefs. He identifies some serious issues, at least as they pertain to him. But he cannot quite manage to do so without degrading someone else’s in the process.

Alec Baldwin is right as far as it goes: the heart, the arteries of the country are now clogged with hate. The fuel of American political life is hatred. And the media, liberal and conservative, often masquerades as Hate Incorporated. But “Good-Bye, Public Life” does little to ameliorate the problem. And in parts, it does quite a lot to aggravate it.

Institute Featured in the Smoky Mountain News

The Institute’s definition of civility was featured in Columbus, Georgia’s Ledger-Enquirer, and in the Houston Chronicle, at the end of November. But it looks like we missed one: the Institute also appeared in a column titled ‘Civility Begins with Us’ in the Smoky Mountain News — a weekly newspaper out of Waynesville, North Carolina.

Institute Featured in the Smoky Mountain News

The November 20 column, written by retired seminary professor Doug Wingeier, offers five approaches to dealing with disagreement and conflict — withdrawing, smoothing, compromising, forcing, and negotiating. And it makes the argument that while each has its place, and while each can be approached with civility and respect, only in negotiating — and to a lesser extent in compromising — is it possible to gain a satisfying, productive result.

In coming to this conclusion, Wingeier writes about the Institute button that he wears on his jacket — Civility is Catching: Pass It On! — and he quotes the Institute’s core definition of civility, and part of the extended definition, too. Civility, he writes, is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. And it is:

Disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, staying present with those with whom we disagree, and negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone’s voice is heard and nobody is ignored. And civility begins with us.

We contacted Doug Wingeier to ask why he chose the Institute’s definition, and he told us that when he Googled civility, ours was the definition that was right on target for the column, and for civic discourse in general. He continued:

I believe that all human beings, as children of God — whether I agree with them or not — are persons of infinite worth and deserve respect as such. Verbal abuse can be as damaging as physical abuse, demeans both object and speaker, undermines community, and subverts one’s objective of making a point or accomplishing a goal.

And he told us that he thought the Institute’s project was a key part in building a truly democratic society.

We couldn’t agree more.

And if you do too — if you believe in the efficacy of civil speech and civil action to solve problems, and in the importance of treating one’s neighbors with respect, friends and adversaries alike — add your voice to ours. Click here to join the Institute for Civility in Government today. Or here to make a donation.

Institute in the Houston Chronicle

First it was Columbus, Georgia’s Ledger-Enquirer. And now it’s the Houston Chronicle. The last half of November saw the Institute’s definition of civility quoted in not one, but two guides to holiday comportment.

Houston Chronicle

The first, of course, was Dimon Kendrick-Holmes’s November 22 column, The Word for Today, and for the Holidays, which we featured last week.

But even more recently, the definition was featured in a Chronicle blog post by The Peace Pastor, Marty Troyer, simply titled Survival Guide for the Holidays.

In Troyer’s post, he tells us that Thanksgiving — and the Holiday Season as a whole — is all about extroverted time with people who believe differently, vote differently, function differently, parent differently, eat differently, relax differently, entertain differently, pray differently, and expect differently than you do. It is a time, he writes, that is as ripe for anxiety as it is for giving thanks.

But to this, he tells us, civility is the solution.

I love the definition of civility from Tomas Spath: “Civility” is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. Speak the truth, tell your story and don’t let anyone run all over you. The Jesus ethic does not demand you lose arguments. Honesty is essential. But so is granting others the same amount of respect you desire. Don’t in any way hide your beliefs, but at the same time stay engaged with those you disagree with. Taking a learning, rather than a “teaching” posture, can often diffuse the anxiety and shows respect for those around the table, even if you experience them as “enemies.”

As we wrote last week, Institute’s definition of civility — and its insistence on a more civil discourse at every level of society — is catching on. The Ledger-Enquirer’s Dimon Kendrick-Holmes told us that it is applicable well beyond the bounds of government. And he is absolutely right.

But it cannot spread alone.

If you believe in the efficacy of civil speech and civil action in Washington D.C., or City Hall, or around the family table, add your voice to ours. Click here to join the Institute for Civility in Government today. Or here to make a donation.

Civility Definition featured in Columbus, Georgia’s Ledger-Enquirer

Civility Definition featured in Columbus, Georgia's Ledger-EnquirerLast week saw the Institute’s definition of civility featured in Columbus, Georgia’s Ledger-Enquirer. As part of his November 22 column, The Word for Today, and for the Holidays, executive editor Dimon Kendrick-Holmes quotes it in full:

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

And he comments astutely that it is as applicable around the Thanksgiving table — among relatives with whom one may have significant personal and political differences — as it is in Congress’ hallowed halls.

The proof, he writes, is in his own personal history. Kendrick-Holmes recounts a visit from some eight years past in which he — a veteran — opened his home to a set of relatives who had come to protest at the army base at Fort Benning, just outside of Columbus.

There were some awkward moments, he writes, like when his house guests thought it wonderful that he had spent four years living abroad, only to find out — to their chagrin — that it was as part of a military assignment.

But civility saved the day.

Civility, he writes, allows us to focus on the things you have in common, and try to listen and learn about a few things you don’t. And it insists that — from literature, to shape note singing, to the state of education in America — there are always more topics of conversation that bring us together than split us apart.

We asked Dimon Kendrick-Holmes why he chose the Institute’s particular definition of the word. And here is what he said: the usual web dictionaries weren’t giving me much more than “politeness” and “courtesy”. And when I typed “define civility” in Google, the Institute’s definition really stood out.

Dimon Kendrick-Holmes isn’t the only person who thinks so. And his column in the Ledger-Enquirer is just the latest example of how the Institute’s definition of civility — and its insistence on a more civil discourse at every level of society — continues to spread. But it cannot spread alone.

If you want to add your voice to the chorus calling for civility, click through and join the Institute for Civility in Government today. If you support the institute’s core values, and its mission to facilitate dialogue and teach respect, click here to make a donation.

And certainly, as Dimon Kendrick-Holmes tells us in his column: let’s all focus a little bit on civility this holiday season.

Civility Linkblogging: Campus, Raceway, and Ghana

Linkblogging
By Anita Pratanti, via flickr

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

This week’s civility linkblogging features stories that focus on the domestic sphere, especially: on the adjustment that college students face as they move out of their parents’ homes, and must negotiate space with roommates who are sometimes all but strangers; and on the fierce world of rivalries between sports fans, where loyalty all too easily slips into ad hominem attacks.

This week also features a column about incivility in the national politics of Ghana, where American readers will find familiar the writer’s articulation of the problems of party polarization, incessant name-calling, and the incendiary effect of cable news.

Do you have a link that you think would be right for this segment? Please do not hesitate to email it to us at editor@instituteforcivility.org. Include the title, url, and a short summary, and we will gladly review it for publication.

Now — the list:

Divided Stockton City Council Looking For More Civility At Meetings
Posted at CBS Sacramento, August 14, 2013

Stockton’s legislative council gathered on Wednesday and asked for recommendations from city staff on how to make the meetings more smooth and civilized.

Civility Critical to Surviving Dormatory Life
Posted by Debra Nussbaum at Philly.com, August 18, 2013

The rules for making peace with roommates are not much different from the basic etiquette that makes life better for everyone. To get you started this fall, try these tips from local students and Rutgers roommate agreements.

Ohio Politicians to Address Their Own Divisiveness With Help of National Civility Group
Posted by David Scott at Ohio.com, August 18, 2013

This year, a group of Ohio lawmakers is getting together to understand each other on a personal level…. Ohio Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Copley Twp., with help from former Ohio Rep. Ted Celeste, D-Lakewood, is arranging a bipartisan meeting of as many as 30 legislators in the Statehouse on Sept. 17 that will be an off-the-record attempt to learn more about each other, how they form their political views and how they can achieve greater cooperation.

Fan Civility
Posted by Tammy Kaehler at Two For The Road, August 19, 2013

I get that we all have a microphone now, and I do enjoy the conversation that is social media … I’ve gotten to meet (virtually and in person) a lot of great people because of those conversations. But I suppose there’s also the looming possibility that someone’s going to call me ignorant or an a—— because I’m expressing an opinion that’s different than theirs.

All I can say is, like and hate who you choose in the racing world. I won’t judge you, if you don’t judge me.

Political Incivility in Ghana
Posted by Nana Marfo at GhanaWeb, August 22, 2013

Common features of civility are having good manners, being willing to listen, and showing a concern for other people’s feelings and opinions. But political civility requires more than politeness and respectful listening; it also requires a realization that we must live together and ultimately compromise on some things where we differ in fundamental ways.