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Posts Tagged ‘civility’

Arizona and an Opportunity for Dialogue…or Not

If you’ve been perusing this blog awhile, you might not expect what you’re about to read.

Like every national tragedy, the horrific shootings in Arizona last weekend have led to instant analysis of the broader picture—especially what this says about us, our laws, and the remedies required. A groundswell of voices is calling for dialogue, for reaching across divides, for “disagreeing without being disagreeable.” More stridently, pundits like Gary Hart have explicitly blamed our toxic public discourse for Jared Loughner’s actions.

Naturally, as someone who cares deeply about dialogue, I would join that groundswell in a heartbeat. Right?

Would that I could.

Look, I am always delighted to see civil, compassionate dialogue get the support it deserves. I think the president hit the right note in his Tucson speech: this tragedy can serve as a catalyst to re-examine our actions and behave more civilly. But precisely because I care about dialogue, I don’t want to connect it causally to the horror in Arizona. Not yet, anyway.

Why not? First consider the evidence—or, more to the point, the lack thereof. We still know precious little about Loughner. What we do know points to serious mental imbalance at the root of his actions. Almost nothing connects him directly with our scorched-earth public discourse. Any connection we make, therefore, is tenuous at best, at least right now, until more evidence comes in.

Consider too our emotional state. Simply put, we are a nation in shock. If you have ever experienced shock, you know it is impossible to think straight. Same deal here.

Authentic dialogue is about clarity, a quest to uncover truth wherever possible, a “listening together” to grasp what the situation is saying to us. By its very nature, this kind of dialogue—whether among friends, between partisans, or across the blogosphere—takes time: time to reflect, time to build on one another’s perspectives, time for new facts to emerge.

Yes, we do need to restore civil dialogue to our public square. The effort to foster it should proceed regardless of any connection with the Arizona shootings. In the weeks and months to come, there will be plenty of opportunity to reflect on that connection. But now is not the time. Better to grieve now and reason together later.

A World Without Attack Ads?

“Post-election time for us to come together,” intoned the headline for Wednesday’s Ironton Tribune editorial.

Please forgive me a bit of cynicism here. It just all sounds so familiar.

Maybe you’ve noticed the cycle. After a campaign of scurrilous accusations and character assassination, one candidate wins and everyone extols the healing process. Words spoken during the campaign are rapidly discounted. Voters and candidates alike speak of “coming together.” Then, in the next campaign, we go through the same destructive pattern.

And this is a good way to run a democracy? My concern is that it’s quite the opposite: that negative campaigning is poisoning the public well.*

One principle of advertising, including political advertising, is that if you repeat your message often enough, broadly enough, and loudly enough, people will remember it. So if I, as a candidate, flood the airwaves highlighting my opponent’s ties to the evil cretins of Wall Street, that image will stick in some minds. Of course, my opponent may do the same, casting me as an eccentric cat owner with mental health issues. (Oh wait, that one’s true.)

Let’s say for the moment that these personal attacks succeed. (The research on their effectiveness has yielded conflicting results.) But what do they succeed at? I suspect they not only help elect candidates in certain situations, but also deepen a more pervasive, undifferentiated cynicism among voters in general. Hear enough charges and countercharges, and you can justifiably think that “they’re all ethically challenged/owned by special interests/in it for themselves/etc.”

The results of a survey commissioned by the Project on Campaign Conduct may support this conclusion. It found that 59% of respondents believe all or most candidates twist the truth, 39% believe they lie to voters, and 88% believe at least some candidates deliberately make unfair attacks on their opponents.

So. What would happen if candidates called a cease-fire? If our campaigns were more civil, it might make more emotional room for actual ideas to come to the surface. If we see candidates behaving decently, it might increase our trust in them. If we see them openly wrestling with issues, we might think they’re legitimately concerned for our interests rather than simply promoting the party line. Their campaigns might even give us enough usable input to help us reason out the issues for ourselves.

I have no illusions that we’ll get there anytime soon. In an endeavor that’s all about winning, it’s easy to grab on to any competitive advantage, however dishonorable. But I believe that, at bottom, we’re better than this. And because candidates are the most visible elements of their campaigns, their example of civility could set the tone for a more civil America.

In the meantime, I think I’ll do my small part next election season—by muting every attack ad right from the start. Want to join me? Your brain will thank you.

*I’m talking here about personal attacks and deliberate distortions, not campaigning that legitimately—even bluntly—points out differences in candidates’ positions or relevant character flaws. 

Three Phrases for a More Civil Life

We now return you to our regularly scheduled program, more or less in progress.

For the past 10 days, I have been writing an article for a denominational publication. Wrestling is more like it: sometimes the ideas and connections simply do not flow, and this was one such case. Regrettably, that has drawn me away from communicating directly with you.

For this week, you may want to look over my new article at A Civil Tongue, a website advancing the cause of civility in public life. It deals with three phrases whose consistent practice can turn them into attitudes of the heart—and turn us into more civil people. Have a look, and feel free to comment, either here or at A Civil Tongue.

Thanks so much for your patience.

A Civil Letter to Sarah Palin

Marianne Williamson’s letter to Sarah Palin didn’t exactly make front-page news when it first came out. But it’s required reading for anyone who cares about dialogue.

Williamson, a spiritual teacher who, by her own admission, is not a conservative, wrote her letter when Palin was using the language of guns to encourage “taking aim” at her opponents. In theory, Williamson could have joined the popular chorus in mocking Palin mercilessly.

Instead, she tried to engage Palin. And the way she did it is enlightening.

Right from the start, Williamson admitted her position in the public square—both what separates her from Palin and, unusually, where they find common ground. “I don’t share your politics but I do share your country,” she wrote. “I am writing to you now as a fellow American and also as a woman who, like you, puts my spiritual journey above all else.” By asserting that common ground, she looked to build trust where none existed before.

Then she went one step further. Rather than diss Palin’s recent book from afar, she made the effort to read it. What a concept! Williamson found a lot to like and said so, establishing more solidarity. She also found a lot to dislike and said that too—in a respectful, civil manner.

Then she made her plea: a carefully reasoned argument for Palin to stop using gun metaphors in her public appearances.

I could describe the letter more, but check it out and you’ll see what I mean. If we could bring such honesty and gentleness to our own dialogues—if we could first seek out common ground and strive to build trust—we just might connect with our adversaries as never before. Part of building that trust involves absorbing, in depth, what “the other side” believes; in doing so, we show a respect that will come through in our dialogues.

Have you ever reached out to an adversary like this? How did you do it? What were the results? Do tell.

42 Gang Leaders and an Old White Grandmother

Bertie Simmons opened her remarks by saying, “If we can’t imagine what civility looks like, we can’t do civility.”

She then showed us what it looks like.

Simmons was a panelist at last week’s Citizens’ Civility Symposium 2010, sponsored by the Institute for Civility in Government. (Check out my last post for a broad overview.) Compelling and drop-dead funny, she spun the remarkable tale of her tenure as principal of Furr High School in Houston—and how she used civility to transform the culture.

That culture was tough, to say the least. The school had no fewer than 15 gangs. On her first day, one student threw another through a plate glass window. Another day brought a near riot to the hallways.

Simmons wondered whether she was cut out for the job—especially because 75% of the students were Latino, 25% were black, and she was (in her words) “white and old.” How could she possibly lead such a school, let alone make a lasting impact?

She got an early boost from a cultural phenomenon she hadn’t known about. Many Latino and black children learn from day one to hold their grandmothers in high esteem. As it turned out for Simmons, being “old” translated into being a grandmother. So she had an in.

And she leveraged it with a bold reach across divides. After the near riot, Simmons convened 42 leaders from the 15 gangs in one room—and asked them what it would take to make peace. What she heard amazed her: the depth of mistrust and disillusionment that these young people felt toward the system, the pervasive sense that they had been left behind.

How big was the divide? The gang leaders stunned Simmons with their belief that 9/11 never happened. They’d all seen things like that in movies; why couldn’t the government produce the same sort of “movie” and just make the whole thing up?

So Simmons took it upon herself to prove 9/11—by arranging a field trip to Ground Zero.

It took a great deal of planning and fundraising, but the trip took place, and the gang leaders got to see the devastation for themselves. In the process, Simmons built trust and got a penetrating look into the mindsets that drive many of her students.

That is what civility—and dialogue—look like. That is one way they bear fruit.

Simmons closed her remarks with the quote from Oscar Wilde that I mentioned last week. It, too, is a model for us as pursue dialogue: “Run your fingers through my soul. For once, just once, feel exactly what I feel, believe what I believe, perceive as I perceive, look, experience, examine, and for once, just once, understand.”

When Leaders and Thinkers Take On Civility

So what will it take to make us civil? And what is civility, anyway?

Monday’s Citizens’ Civility Symposium, sponsored by the Institute for Civility in Government, addressed a whole range of issues, including these. The all-star cast included the former vice-chair of the 9/11 Commission, the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, two other (active or retired) members of Congress, the co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, a renowned Christian social critic, and a Houston principal who brokered peace among the 15 gangs in her school.

The plenary panels focused on two topics: civility on Capitol Hill and civility in our communities. The insights came fast and furious, and I believe the Institute will post a video of the proceedings on its website. For now, a few highlights:

Youth Will Be Served

Young people were a leitmotif throughout both panels. As former Rep. Bill Archer (R-Texas) sees it, any initiative to instill civility in public life must begin with children. NEH chair Jim Leach took it one step further, noting that the young—who, surveys have found, are substantially more tolerant than their forebears—will need to train the rest of us in civility. Several speakers mentioned the need for families to teach civility, especially around that rapidly disappearing icon of family life: the dinner table.

Just Be Nice? Not on Your Life

Does civility equal politeness, or “making nice,” or papering over differences? None of the above. Leach cited the requests of some campaign contributors—“as you’ll recall, we helped you get elected, Senator, and now there’s a vote coming up, and we’d sure like it if you voted this way”—as uncivil speech wrapped in polite clothing. On another front, former 9/11 vice-chair Lee Hamilton said, “You want the system to have a clash of ideas, and you want those ideas put forth robustly. But there is a line you do not cross.”

Echoing this, Os Guinness argued for a different type of public square: not dominated by one faith, not thoroughly secular, but a place where everyone is free to bring faith into the discussion while working within the framework of justice and fairness for all. Guinness believes that a truly global public square is beginning to emerge, and even those who considered civility a sign of weakness—like some Christian conservatives—are realizing it’s in their best interest to take their place in that public square.

Where Did Incivility Come From?

P. M. Forni, from Johns Hopkins, cited four principal contributors to today’s incivility: stress, anonymity, lack of time, and lack of restraint. In that context, he asserted that we cannot solve incivility until we correct our current overemphasis on self-esteem in children, because they are growing up with the idea that their needs and desires should be their top priority. Parents need educating, he said, in the idea that social intelligence—including the ability to be civil—is, if anything, more important for success than the intelligence measured by IQ tests.

What Do We Do Now?

Tell our elected representatives we don’t want divisiveness, and call them out on uncivil behavior when they display it (Lee Hamilton). Build relationships across the divide long before the tough issues come up (Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas). Be careful and precise with the language we use: don’t describe a fellow American as a fascist when we lost so many American lives fighting fascism in World War II (Leach). Don’t underestimate the power of one person to change things (Bertie Simmons from Furr High School in Houston). To reach the uncivil, speak to their interests as well as their ideals (Guinness).

And finally this, from Bertie Simmons quoting Oscar Wilde: “Run your fingers through my soul. For once, just once, feel exactly what I feel, believe what I believe, perceive as I perceive, look, experience, examine, and for once, just once, understand.”

Your turn. If you were there, what did I miss? (A ton, I know.) If you weren’t, what do you think? Please click on Comments below and put in your two cents.

Why Sign THIS Civility Pledge?

Do you have “channel markers” in your life? I’m referring to those people whose deep insights and good example command your attention. Wherever you are in life, you keep half an eye on them (as you would a channel marker when you’re sailing) to see what they’re thinking, writing, or doing. A glance at their words and actions helps you chart a straight course.  

Jim Wallis of Sojourners is one of my channel markers. He’s a born-again Christian with a deep concern for peace and justice issues—so he confounds the conventional wisdom that religious always means conservative (and that liberal always means godless). His prolific writing has found expression in three books, a popular daily blog, and the magazine where he serves as editor-in-chief.

Yesterday, he asked me to sign a civility pledge.

Not just me, of course, but anyone and everyone. Like me (and probably you, since you’re reading this), Wallis is deeply concerned about the climate of polarization that pervades U.S. culture. Like me, he believes people of faith have a unique role to play in nudging us toward dialogue. So he’s asking said people of faith to sign his Covenant of Civility as a critical step.

I’m skeptical of pledge signing in general: it’s too easy to pledge and too hard to deliver. (Think New Year’s resolutions.) But this may be different. According to the site, “church leaders from diverse theological and political beliefs” have already signed on. Just as important, Jim Wallis is a “channel marker” for a wide swath of the faith community—including, I believe, people in very high places—so anything he produces has more clout than the average effort.

Civility, as I’ve mentioned before, is only the first step, a precondition for the dialogue that draws us close to one another across all manner of divides. But it is an absolutely necessary first step, because you can’t talk—or, more important, listen—until you’ve stopped shouting. I encourage you to visit the site and sign the pledge.

Joe Wilson’s Dialogue

Years ago, before I had a better hold on my temper, I screamed at a star player during a kids’ softball game. It was stupid and reprehensible. The game was emotionally charged, and I lost my cool. I promptly apologized to anyone and everyone who would listen.

My point here is that we all say insanely stupid things now and then. So I am not here to pile on Joe Wilson. Instead, I want to explore what his outburst during the president’s health care speech—and the aftermath thereof—can tell us about dialogue.

Many commentators have already covered the obvious: that “you lie!” is emblematic of the remarkable incivility that has pervaded recent headlines and town hall meetings. But where does this incivility come from? The language gives us a clue: it’s the kind of speech used by those who (a) have deeply held beliefs or vested interests and (b) perceive them to be under dire threat. Threats induce our fight-or-flight response, so Joe Wilson spoke fighting words.

The problem is, we can’t dialogue like that—so we can’t resolve anything that way.

Dialogue, by our working definition, requires a clear mind and a listening heart—an openness to the other—so we can think together toward the truth of the matter. We need this “thinking together” because no one has a corner on the truth. But we cannot cultivate the required openness if we cling to our beliefs as the only way to perceive the issue.

The health care debate is a great example. There are many good ideas on the table. But how can we think together about them if we do not open our minds and hearts? Rejecting openness just leaves us with the same vested interests and tired phrases that obscure the dialogue: “you lie,” “death panels,” etc.

Then there are the strange mechanics of apology in our current age. Whenever someone says or does something inappropriate on the public stage, he quickly apologizes. Pundits just as quickly parse the wording of the apology and conclude that it’s not enough (or it’s not sincere). The offender may apologize again, and that’s not enough. Ad nauseam.

This raises two lessons for dialogue—one based on truth, the other on grace. First, dialogue cannot proceed unless the participants share a commitment to honesty. So apologize only if you’re sorry; to craft a faux apology leads to mistrust and distracts from the dialogue at hand. Second, if you receive a sincere apology, forgive and move on.

How do these lessons promote dialogue? Consider that dialogue often involves discussions of sensitive issues among people who disagree. Discussions get heated, and yes, people can say intemperate things. That requires a mechanism for honest apologies and ready forgiveness. The participants can’t be expected to maintain their openness and trust—and thus advance the dialogue further—if “offenders” issue insincere apologies and “offendees” let their resentment linger. 

If we’re going to move forward on social issues, we need dialogue. That, in turn, requires us to open our minds and hearts and keep them open, even when the discussion boils over. 

But how do we get to this openness in the first place? This, I believe, is where the Divine can play such a powerful role. Good topic for next week.