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Join the Civilogue: Obama, Poll Underscore Need; Plus a 'Traitor' Mea Culpa

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A few weeks ago, I argued for those of us of goodwill to assertively insist on civility in public discourse. I even invented a name for what I was calling for: Civilogue.

In the past few days, even more good reasons have popped up to justify this proposal that we not merely passively decry the unpleasantness that passes for so much of our political discussion. I'll point you to President Obama's commencement speech in Michigan this past weekend, the fascinating and even unbelievable results of a poll commissioned by a small college in Pennsylvania, and some of the response I got to a couple of posts concerning the Confederacy.

Stick with me, and you'll see how I think an apology for incivility should work.
Start with my basic premise: The personal insults and thermonuclear language that are lobbed by both sides are poisoning the body politic, and it's just possible that polite, appropriate reprimands can shame at least some of the guilty into moderating their language while retaining the passion of their opinions.

Here's how President Obama made that same point Sunday at the University of Michigan (and has anybody else noticed that Obama's most effective quotes are a lot longer than a sound bite?):

"These arguments we're having, over government and health care and war and taxes, these are serious arguments. They should arouse people's passions. And it's important for everybody to join in the debate with all the vigor that the maintenance of a free people requires. But we can't expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down.

"You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question somebody's views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. Throwing around phrases like 'socialists,' 'Soviet-style takeover' and 'fascists,' and 'right-wing nut' – that may grab headlines, but also has the effect of comparing our government, our political opponents, to authoritarian, even murderous regimes. . . .

"The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation, it prevents learning. Since, after all, why should we listen to a fascist or a socialist or a right-wing nut? Or a left-wing nut?"

Why, indeed?

Next, I'll move to the poll commissioned by Allegheny College in northwestern Pennsylvania. The full name of the study is "Nastiness, Name-calling & Negativity: The Allegheny College Survey of Civility and Compromise in American Politics." The methodology is a standard national phone survey of 1,000 Americans by Zogby. Demographics are pretty representative by gender, race, age and, to the extent that one can tell, political party affiliation.

The intent of the survey was to find out whether people think politics is getting less civil -- and if so, what might be done about it. The authors take a stand that I applaud:

"Our hope is that the information contained in this report will provide insight into what average citizens believe about the direction of our politics, and perhaps suggest avenues for change. At the core of this effort rests the notion that Americans can be active, partisan and passionate without being rude, selfish, shortsighted and, finally, undemocratic. "

Before I get to some of the results, let's lay out more than the standard set of polling caveats. It's always the case that any poll can be wrong for many reasons, though a well-designed survey is much more likely to be valid than not. One reason a poll can be wrong is that people lie to pollsters. Case in point from this survey:

"Some 92 percent of the respondents reported that they were registered to vote, with a surprising 80 percent suggesting they were 'highly likely' to vote in national elections and another 13 percent saying they were 'somewhat likely' to vote. Of course, self-reported measures of political engagement are notoriously inflated, but even so, we believe these figures are quite high."

I believe so, too. Even for the highly engaging 2008 election, only 74 percent of Americans were actually registered. So keep a few grains of salt handy when I run though some of the results. Start with the survey question that may offer the best hope for greater civility:

"Do you think civility in politics is important for a healthy democracy?"

More than 95 percent of respondents agreed, with only 2.6 percent saying it is not necessary, and the rest unsure. Across lines of gender, age or party affiliation, Americans tip their hats to civility.

And there is significant agreement across the spectrum about what kinds of behavior are unacceptable:
  • Belittling or insulting someone -- 89 percent
  • Comments about someone's race or ethnicity -- 89 percent
  • Personal attacks on someone you disagree with -- 87 percent
  • Shouting over someone you disagree with during an argument -- 85 percent
  • Comments about someone's sexual orientation -- 81percent
  • Interrupting someone you disagree with in a public forum -- 77 percent
  • Manipulating the facts about an issue to persuade others -- 77 percent
  • Questioning someone's patriotism because they have a different opinion -- 73 percent
So that's all cause for hope. After all, if so many of us disapprove of these behaviors, surely we can nudge others into avoiding them, right? Here's an interesting chromosome-linked result. At least in America, women really are the fairer sex:

"There are consistent differences in public behaviors that women and men categorize as civil or uncivil. For each and every questionable behavior asked of respondents, women were more likely than men to classify the behavior as uncivil. "

But not all of the results are about people reaching across the spectrum in the name of civility. Here's a result that breaks significantly along party lines:
"Democrats have more faith in educational institutions to make politics more civil than do Republicans, with 35.8 and 33.8 percent of Democrats selecting local schools and colleges/universities, respectively, as institutions that should take a lead role in increasing civility.

"Conversely, when asked the same question, only 24.2 and 21.8 percent of Republicans selected local schools and colleges/universities, respectively. On the other hand, our results imply that Republicans are more likely to believe that churches and families are responsible for teaching civility, with 20.1 percent selecting churches and 34.1 percent selecting families, compared to 13.0 and 17.4 percent, respectively, among Democrats."

Overall, though, I'll side with the researchers who say that the 95 percent support for civility is "one of the most important findings of the study."

And now, my apology. My last post was a whack at Confederate History Month, in which I asserted that the Confederates "were unarguably the deadliest traitors in our nation's history." I advanced my case in a way that was calculated, at least in part, to poke the anthill with a stick. I am well aware than there are Southerners who take pride in what they consider the valor and honor of their Confederate ancestors. And that simply using the word "traitor" was sure to set them off.

I got plenty of response, both via the comments on the post and direct e-mails. The vilest of the comments were filtered out by the Politics Daily comments monitors. No such luck with my e-mail, where I was subjected to anti-Semitism, insults and personal attacks. On the other hand, there were a few people who took the time and interest to be civil, though no less disapproving than their uncivil co-opinionists. I let those few civil writers know that, while our disagreements remain, I appreciated their effort. And that our ability to argue powerfully but without vilification represented something wonderful about out country.

So here is my apology: I am sorry that I did not make a greater effort to make my case in a way that did not needlessly rankle those who disagree. I'll try it again, briefly, here and now: From the perspective of a loyal citizen of the United States of America, were the Confederates traitors? Yes, I believe so, but that's not necessarily an attack on their honor.

Consider that from the perspective of the British, Benedict Arnold was loyal to crown and country. And George Washington was a traitor. While from the American point of view, Arnold has become the very symbol of treason and betrayal, while Washington is the "father of our country." I do not doubt that the Confederates believed they were being loyal to a cause worth fighting and dying for. Or that many of them battled with unusual bravery and valor. And when you consider that George Washington warned his countrymen in his farewell address of those who would "alienate any portion of our country from the rest," and also that Washington himself owned slaves -- the issue that would indeed alienate Americans from each other -- it is clear that U.S. history does not march in a straight, logical line.

Please do not consider this an indication of my interest in re-opening the argument. I have seen enough cherry-picked quotes from the Federalist Papers and Founders in favor of secession and even slavery. I have my own counter-quotes aplenty. I remain convinced by the evidence I have seen that a main reason CSA was created was to defend the legality of slavery against Union opposition (read Carl Cannon's comprehensive post on that here), and that this was a poor cause to kill and die for.

But that does not mean that I lack respect for those who disagree with me. Or that I should act as if there are no arguments worth considering on that other side. So while I am not particularly inviting more argument about this particular issue, I am certainly hoping that you will join me in the ongoing civilogue.
Filed Under: Culture, Ethics

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Our new era of "civilogue" could be the necessary "change" our President promised while campaigning and he has what it takes to usher it in.

November 29 2010 at 9:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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