Yes, Americans are polarized. Yes, we’re also uncivil about it. We shout at our fellow citizens across barricades, leave enraged posts on websites, and tune in to watch people shouting at one another on cable news. We’re ticked off, and we’re showing it.
But is it really a problem? That was the central question at the Zócalo/Cal Humanities “Searching for Democracy” event at Marines’ Memorial Club & Hotel in San Francisco, which was entitled “Is Civility Overrated?” Moderator Joe Mathews, a Zócalo editor and fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion, joined four panelists from around the country to discuss whether incivility is inherent to our democracy or a threat to our democracy.
Cassandra Dahnke, a co-founder of the Houston-based Institute for Civility in Government, recounted that she used to take politically diverse groups of people–from far left to far right–to Washington, D.C. to discuss five issues they cared about. Everyone would get along very well until they revealed their political differences. Then, although they didn’t turn hostile, they effectively shut down communication among one another. “We lack a basic skill set,” said Dahnke–the skills to communicate with one another across such divides.
All well and good, said Mathews, but who’s to say that polarization and incivility are necessarily correlated? Studies suggest that it’s the rich people on both right and left who are the worst offenders against public civility. “Then it’s everybody’s problem,” said panelist Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. Rich people, he said, control much of the discourse, hold most of the power, and set many of the trends in American politics.
The main trouble, Brady said, was that Americans came to have high expectations of their political culture after World War II. The 1950s and the 1960s, at least until the Vietnam War, saw a lot of cooperation in Washington and an “era of good feeling.” But after race relations and social issues like abortion came into play, much of that comity broke down. “Those kinds of issues are really hard for people,” Brady said. “It’s easy to go to your corner.” What’s worse is that more and more policymaking has become “moralized,” even taxation.
Still, said Mathews, people often have legitimate grievances. Aren’t pleas for civility often just a desire to paper over genuine differences? “Civility is often read and heard in a very simple, simplistic way,” said Meenakshi Chakraverti, who leads the Public Conversations Project in San Diego. “For a lot of people it means avoidance.” But, she noted, “expressing your passion isn’t uncivil.” Protest can be civil, and so can spirited argument. The threshold to incivility is crossed when things degenerate into name-calling and rage. “When you call someone a ‘fascist,’ it obscures,” Chakraverti said, because no one else knows what criteria you’re using when you deploy such a term. Anger, too, escalates things needlessly and “triggers neuropsychological responses.”
To some extent, Mathews observed, turning to Jennifer Linde, a communications and performance scholar at Arizona State University, civility is about performing: you’re putting on a civil face. What’s the link? Linde said she’d be hesitant to call civility a “performance.” “It can’t just be about manners,” she said. “It’s intended to generate knowledge.” To that end, Linde has been putting on programs on controversial and emotive topics–immigration, torture, Arizona politics!–where she invites volunteers from the audience onto the stage in order to share personal stories and opinions. It’s a setting in which people who are very divided on a topic find a way to listen to one another. “They’ll say, ‘I haven’t changed what I think, but I understand what you think,’” Linde explained. “And that’s huge.”
If indeed polarization feeds into incivility, then one challenge at hand is to reduce the polarization of politics. For Brady, some of the solution lies in minor “structural changes.” For instance, make it harder for a filibuster to happen in the Senate. “You can force a filibuster and go home,” Brady complained. “We should have a cost imposed on people who want to filibuster.” He suggested that we might make filibustering senators stand at the podium and actively exhibit their determination to shut down discussion.
Mathews, still skeptical, suggested that guarding against “incivility” might simply be a way of insulating the powerful against those less powerful, of shutting out dissident voices, and of classifying some topics as out of bounds. “That’s a huge question,” said Chakraverti. If civility means speaking softly and never interrupting, “we’re going to silence a lot of people.” But “argument is not uncivil.” And it’s important for people “who aren’t used to talking across differences” to develop the skill of doing so.
So, asked Mathews, what do we need? More rules about discourse? No, agreed the panelists. “We don’t need more rules,” said Dahnke–we’ve already got a lot of them under the law. “We need more skill.” Schools across the nation are already trying to incorporate classes on civil discussion and conflict resolution into the curriculum.
Questions from the audience included one about whether the online world is making our divisions worse. The panelists all agreed that it was. Another audience member speculated on whether we might simply be in a pendulum swing, with both more civil times and less civil times behind us. It was likely, said Brady, who recounted that the election of 1800 was as bitter as anything seen in the modern age.
Watch full video here.
See more photos here.
Read expert opinions on whether we are more civil now or then here.
*Photos by Pamela Palma.