What does ‘Civility’ mean?

In his TheAtlantic.com blog, James Fallows quotes a reader’s query:

Everyone seems to say, “we need to be more civil!” without actually putting forward positive advice on what constitutes responsible vs. irresponsible speech. … I would love to see a list of common sense rules (similar to Michael Pollan’s food rules) that serve as good reminders of civil discourse.

Fallows responds:

This is a worthy challenge. An easy starting example would be: no advertising imagery suggesting lethal violence or the threat of same. Nooses, guillotines, ammo, guns. But those are gimmes. I am sure readers have more creative and useful examples. If you send them in, I’ll compile and share them.

In a subsequent post, Fallows passes along some of his readers’ responses. A few samples:

I’d suggest that one shouldn’t say something in a manner that one wouldn’t also use at the dinner table with one’s ten-year old kid….

What I would like to see is a code of conduct, to which elected office holders, candidates for office, and maybe even media pundits, could swear to uphold. … What should be in such a code? Speaking the truth, or at least not saying something they know to be untrue, would be a good start….

… Civility isn’t competition, but I fear that’s where a rule-heavy system would take us. … civility isn’t about judging others. It’s about judging ourselves. … We only need a little empathy, a little self-awareness and the ability to honestly ask ourselves how we would feel if our own words or actions were turned against us….

1) Speak and act privately and publicly as if the person you respect most is secretly observing (and judging) you.
2) Treat others as you would want them to treat you….. [in other words: the Golden Rule]

The responses continue in a third post:

How about banning the use of the “strawman” fallacy (i.e. attacking someone for a position they don’t really hold)? That should take care of about 90% of all inflammatory rhetoric…..

From a reader in California, a reply that seems to come closest to satisfying the original call for “a list of common sense rules”:

  1. The words “traitor,” “treason” and variations thereof are reserved for people actually charged with treason.
  2. All references to tyranny should be limited to foreign governments. Concerns about the scope of government in the United States should instead be couched in the language of individual and states’ rights and freedoms instead of in the language of encroachment by a hostile power.
  3. At no time can we separate the “real” Americans from the fake ones, even if we disagree about values.
  4. If the statement is calculated to shut down debate or devolves into name-calling (“You lie!), it is not helpful.
  5. Attributing an opponent’s positions to personal deficiencies or ulterior motives (e.g. calling them stupid, drug-addled, insecure, or racist/sexist) is not constructive.
  6. Respond to your opponents as if you believe them to be reasonable, intelligent, mature adults–even if you don’t actually think so.
  7. Anything meant to bait your opponents or purposefully piss them off is not helpful. You should either be trying to convince the other side, or rallying your own, but never saying something just to provoke reaction.
  8. If you make the claim that someone is being dishonest, you need to immediately follow that claim with evidence.
  9. Replace all further political discourse with the Socratic method. (My personal favorite)

A reminder that neither side is blame-free:

One of the things about political discourse that I find most frustrating is the intellectually lazy notion that Side A will get Side B to change its evil ways by pointing out Side B’s many evils. … All across the blogosphere and media I’ve read a general defense of “yes, our side may have used vitriol before but their side is worse.” To which I say, deal with your 2%….

An especially empathetic reader argues that those who respond to uncivil rhetoric have their reasons:

… The last twenty years, and particularly the last three or four, have been years of disruptive and threatening change for a very large part of the American population. These are people who were raised to believe they had a right to a materially abundant, stable life — job, home, family — and now live at a time when all of that is in doubt. Naturally they are resentful; naturally they find it easier to assign blame to other people than to look within themselves (or to just accept the new reality forced upon them).
These are the people who form political talk radio’s primary audience. They’ve made hosts like Limbaugh and Hannity rich. Toning down the rhetoric that has made them is not something the talk radio people have an obvious incentive to do — they have done very well by speaking to the resentment and hostility of an audience now possessed of a highly developed sense of victimhood. Calls for civility are now running directly into that sense of victimhood: an immovable object, opposed by an all too resistible force.

How ironic that the victims’ resentment and hostility has been turned against the very laws and policies that are designed to help them!

I could go on pulling quotes, but now we’re entering diminishing-returns territory. If you’re interested enough to have read this far, you’d be better off reading the original.

UPDATE In a blog post entitled “‘How to be Civil’: The Finale!”, Fallows passes along more of his readers’ suggestions. In my opinion few of them measure up to the first batch, but your mileage may vary.

About Hamilton Richards

I retired in 2006 as a Senior Lecturer in Computer Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin. These days I volunteer technical support for Citizens' Climate Lobby (Austin chapter), Common Ground for Texans, (CG4Tx.org), Integrity Texas (IntegrityTexas.org), and several friends.
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