September 30th, 2009

The Conundrum of Civil Communication


photo credit: miqul

Last night, the Sutherland Institute held their quarterly blogger briefing. Guest panelists were representatives of the Republican and Democrat parties in Utah, and the audience was comprised of, well, bloggers. The topic, “Civility in Politics: Where Do We Draw the Line?”, keyed off of a recent survey showing that 71% of Utahns think that our political discourse has become less civil in the last five years.

I tend to agree with the commentary that Dave Hansen, Utah Republican Party Chairman, gave: it is likely technology that has created this observation of increased incivility. In reality, and especially compared with political intercourse from a couple decades or centuries ago, things are pretty calm; if an accusatory outburst during a presidential speech is to be considered the most outlandish of examples of incivility, then I’d say we’re doing fairly well. But in a world of social media and rapid-fire commentary, every foible is potentially on public display and able to be transmitted to the masses within seconds. Overall we are a civil people, even though in individual cases there are plenty of instances of one’s failure to show respect and decency.

As I’ve thought about this topic in the past few days, I think that a significant issue is being altogether ignored in this discussion. Yes, sometimes our conversations can become heated and direct—wholly uncivil, even. (Myself and commenters on this blog are no exception, especially with the issues I bring up for discussion!) But I believe that it’s also important to focus on the need to separate people from issues.

Example: Persons A and B are friends. A’s mother is on medicare and food stamps, and B opposes these and all other social welfare programs administered by the government. If B knows about A’s mother, it’s likely that he would not bring up these subjects in their conversation. After all, more often than not A will look favorably towards these programs, since his mother is benefiting from them.

Imagine, then, that A decides for whatever reason to discuss the subject of social welfare programs with B. Assuming B does not know about A’s mother, he is likely to offend his friend when discussing his desire to see such programs abolished outright. A is likely, then, to be defensive from the outset, feeling that B must be cruel and inhumane; after all, does he want A’s mother to be destitute and impoverished?

Other examples abound, all stemming from the inability we seem to have in separating an issue from a person. When people embrace an issue they hold dear, it seems that they will react poorly to any critique or objection to that issue—for them, it’s personal. Of course, some people capitalize on this emotional connection people are so prone to make, and thus further complicate the situation for those trying to articulate logical opposition to the underlying issue.

Still worse, some people become offended by any counterpoint offered to their opinion, whether or not they feel some affinity for the subject matter being discussed. Any response arguing against their ideas is considered a personal attack and unwelcome. These people might in some cases be classified as being in perpetual ignorance, the recipe for which Elbert Hubbart once wrote is to “be satisfied with your opinions and content with your knowledge.” Fewer things stifle a productive discussion more than somebody who wrongly takes offense.

Clearly, these qualifiers do not absolve us of the responsibility to convey our thoughts with respect for the other person. I believe that there are some times where circumstances might call for a prompt verbal protest (which is often interpreted as being uncivil), but this would be an exception, and not the rule. The affairs of our day certainly invite negativity, criticism, and contention; one need only read through the comments on any popular online forum where relative anonymity is allowed to see this on full and lurid display. Our obligation is to seek the higher road: to show respect, to affirm the worth of other’s opinions, to reason together, and to think of how what we will say might be received before hitting the submit button. I, as much as anybody, have room for improvement in this regard.

Like trust, respect is often and more easily received when it is first offered. Those who primarily and consistently leave negative or critical commentary are likely to be subject to the same tone they themselves are using. These individuals, of course, are the thorn in the side of all who wish to show civility. It’s easy to be nice to your friend, but few have the moral character to be nice to their enemies as well.

In a world of incivility facilitated by anonymity, our common challenge is to rise above the steady stream of squabbles and contribute to a well-meaning, productive, and civil discussion regarding the important issues of our day.

5 Responses to “The Conundrum of Civil Communication”

  1. JHP
    October 1, 2009 at 10:29 am #

    Agreed. We need to separate ourselves and others from our ideas. This problem is one of the biggest in politics today. Politicians and political groups market their plans to whoever will favor them, knowing that people often care only about what may seem to help them. For example, if you don’t want to reform Medicare or Social Security, just tell all the elderly (the most persistent voters) that their benefits will be taken away. If you’re a big fan of welfare, then tell the poor that their food stamps will be taken away. Or tell businesses that they’ll get taxed heavily with a cap and trade system. It’s sad that we can’t all see the bigger picture when debating issues, meaning what’s best for everyone as a whole, whether that includes government involvement or not.

  2. Clumpy
    October 1, 2009 at 3:51 pm #

    I think the guy in the photo just installed the new Office suite.

  3. Clumpy
    October 1, 2009 at 4:08 pm #

    It’s a point to be made, though – anonymity and mass communication makes it easier and easier for political groupthink to perpetuate itself throughout society. Out-of-context stories of poor people suffering populate Michael Moore’s new anticapitalist movie, and if it was party of Sean Hannity’s partisan duties to prove that kittens are mosquitoes he’d find a way to paint everybody with a grip on reality as wife-swapping, Communist ignoramuses.

    Analysis and context are mostly dead, and with them any ability to really match our opinions up with some sort of objective reality.

    Still. . . “I’m not saying I want your mother to suffer, I’m just saying that my political philosophy doesn’t want to give her medicine and food.”

    I have a hard time imagining somebody not making the connection to their own lives. Libertarianism and financial independence and whatnot are all fine, though their implementation does have consequences. I don’t think that mere offense is the greatest threat to our current political discourse unless it leads to people refusing to consider other viewpoints (which it does, so maybe my logic is full of holes).

  4. October 4, 2009 at 1:53 am #

    Oh, I agree completely about separating the people from the ideas. My philosophy is that all people deserve respect, but no ideas deserve it.

    I think that civility and politeness waxes and wanes in society. It’s a function of the social mores of the times. Incivility can be a sign of social divisiveness or upheaval, or wars, but I think more often it just follows the current zeitgeist.

    If you you think debates in the US Congress are uncivil, just try the Australian Parliament. There is of course the infamous event in 1856 where Rep. Preston Brooks (SC) stormed into the senate, and nearly caned Sen. Charles Sumner (MA) to death, three days after Sumner made a particularly raucous speech.

    On the other hand I think there is such a thing as too much respect and/or politeness; when it turns into obfuscation. I mean, I think sometimes people are excessively polite when they don’t want to honestly discuss the elephant in the room.

  5. Neil
    October 5, 2009 at 7:30 pm #

    Evil needs to be uncovered and pointed out where ever it might exist . If that means hurting some feelings of some people that might be involved in the evil, then so be it. Not to say you don’t treat people with respect, but don’t fear the truth. Don’t give up on correct principles to just get along with the crowd and not ruffle feathers.

    “There is not a truth existing which I fear… or would wish unknown to the whole world.”
    Thomas Jefferson

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