Buzzing on vitriol: Civil discourse does not mean fiery passion

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—Think about the political party opposite from yours—or anything you particularly dislike. If your brain is firing a few nasty words and your mouth is about to open, yours is not a singular experience.  It’s also not what most Americans suggest in a benchmark study released by Allegheny College in April, 2010: 87 percent believe it’s possible to respectfully disagree about politics.

If so many people want civil political discourse, why don’t we have it? Part of the answer lies in addressing what exactly is civility.

According to political scientist and former University of Hawaii professor, Neal Milner:

“It means that you speak in a way that is quiet and respectful—and that doesn’t mean not passionate. An important part is to show you are making an effort to understand the position of the person even if you disagree. It’s really about mutual respect. You have to show through your gestures, behavior, and the way you’re talking that you take the other position seriously.”

Milner is quick to add that his definition applies in the abstract to two people speaking to each other—in other words two people engaging in discourse.

Civility also involves “being open to being influenced by each other,” according to Meryl Runion, the author of How to Restore Sanity to Our Political Conversations. Her credo is that we can say what we mean and mean what we say without being mean. She also believes that civil speech is really effective speech.

We can say what we mean and mean what we say without being mean.

When it comes to political life, however, civility is a much more complicated issue. Although personal civility usually means extending oneself for the sake of a valued relationship with another person, the stakes change in the context of media and politics, where the forces working against civility are the needs to adhere to certain defined ideologies or positions and to get or maintain power ... and ratings.

The Allegheny College survey of 1000 randomly-chosen Americans, the same number of participants used to judge the President’s approval rating, came out well before last fall’s election when it was tough to not get caught in the vitriolic crossfire.

There was plenty evidence of the “Culture of Mean” and it didn’t seem to matter that most Americans (as shown in the survey) wanted to hear civil political rhetoric. The problem of why uncivilized speech persists may be that those who want and understand the need for civil political discourse are the ones most predisposed to employ it—and that they may not be in the majority.

Or it may also be that the lack of civility may be aided by the way in which many well-meaning people already speak to each other.

Or it may be that it has taken until now and all the reactionary finger wagging, presidential and otherwise, following the Tucson shootings to make civil speech gain prominent national attention.

More likely, it may be all those things put together.

Milner says he spent a lot of time when he was the Ombudsman at UH trying to teach the importance of civility and helping people to understand how to talk, why bullies develop, and why it’s a group process.

Behavioral studies aside, Milner says he “can’t take those kinds of ideas and explain very much about the way Congress works right now. If you want to talk about Congress, you are talking about a different culture. You’re talking about a culture that behaves the way it does because they changed the rules to make certain kinds of behavior possible.”

Milner says that’s because Congress has become an increasingly partisan body partially due to the proliferation of one party districts. “So the culture of Congress is going to create a strong partisanship,” Milner explains. “The political incentives have changed to make this behavior much more productive.”

On a level much closer to individuals, Milner and Runion agree with Emily Badger, the Washington correspondent for the online magazine Miller-McCune, who says that many of us don’t take the time to think about the nastiness, negativity, and violence in our daily speech. We often say things like: ”I’m going to murder him,” “They’re going to kill the bill,” or “We have to fight to be heard.”

No one is really fighting, killing, or murdering. It’s just the hyperbole of common fear-based speech that some might argue has desensitized us and made it easy to use language imprecisely. We may have been taught “to use our words” when we were toddlers, to speak respectfully and play nice when we were in kindergarten, but even by the time we become pre-adolescents, many of us have learned it’s more important to be “right” even if that means being mean-spirited.

Badger says those who took part in the Allegheny survey say the real way back to civility begins with school systems. She says the participants suggest that “along with teaching about political engagement, we should be teaching them how to politically engage respectfully.” We haven’t yet heard a change of tone, Badger says, because it’s not clear how to get civility into schools. What programs would teach this ethos of respectful, rhetorical exchange about politics?

Badger also says she believes that the 95 percent of people who responded to the survey and who are calling for increased civility may be “outshouted by the 5 percent of the people who don’t seem to agree that civility in politics have gotten out of hand.”

The implicit message is knowing that those who agree that we need more civility in the way we speak about politics can be more vocal and set an example. Right now, you and I can make the choice to be mindful of what political speech comes out of our respective mouths and with what tone we deliver it. And we can choose to celebrate others who do likewise in our personal circles and the public sphere.

It all comes down to this: However long it takes, we will get more of what we model and what we pay attention to.

The full interview with Neal Milner, Meryl Runion, and Emily Badger is on the Town Square archive at Reach Beth-Ann Kozlovich at [email protected]

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