In my overlapping spheres as an advocate for civic literacy and engagement and as a longtime journalist, I’ve encountered several kinds of doubters. And, because I’m trained to seek out and consider multiple sides – or, perhaps, condemned by my journalist’s DNA to heed those various perspectives – I think all the “civility skeptics” are right, to a degree.
I was involved with Boise City Club’s 20th anniversary civil discourse project, a topic that resonated in Idaho during 2016’s nasty campaigns. But as I’ve watched the reaction to and the evolution of the civility movement, I’m persuaded we need new terms and tools. Civility is a noble practice, but the term connotes a passivity that is not enough to help us break our civic logjam. We need to translate our impulse for civil behavior into ways people can act and engage, and not let it be an excuse for people to talk about talking.
I’M MAD, THEREFORE I AM
As I see people react skeptically to “civility,” I break them into several camps.
There are the people on social media who think having a discussion in anything except CAPS-LOCK mode is enabling, excusing, surrendering or collaborating. If you’re not against Trump/Clinton/Breitbart/Obama vociferously enough, you are consorting with the enemy. These people thread together multiple tweets, because 140 characters are not enough to convey the depth of their disappointment with those of us who are insufficiently angry or vocal.
But that’s attitude masquerading as argument. “You’re not as mad as me,” they say, “so my reaction to these times is more authentic than yours.” Once you see that for what it is, its flaw is self-evident.
For another group of skeptics, advocating for a civil dialogue is the equivalent of telling the noisy child to sit down and be quiet, to behave according to our rules. What they hear is: Listen to the (entitled white male) adults. Advocating civil behavior is, to them, one more way for the establishment to enforce its rules about breeding and behavior, to protect its power and position at the top of the heap.
This critique is on to something. I do fear that civility can be twisted to keep, say, the sycophants and parasites around Harvey Weinstein silent and enabling, as he shucks off his terry-cloth robe. If people hear “civility” as a command to “behave,” that’s another way of asking them to accept the status quo. Except for cable TV, talk radio and the special interests that benefit from gridlock or polarization, no one I know wants to defend the status quo. And sometimes protest and civil disobedience are the only ways to smash through indifference and injustice.
BETWEEN US BOYS…
Lastly, there is the “Don’t tell me how to do my job” reaction. This is the frequent response from journalists. They hear the word “civil” and interpret it to mean “You’re asking me to go easy on lying politicians? You want me to let them take back their faux pas?” They interpret such talk as a request to behave like NBC and Billy Bush – we’ll just keep that embarrassing repartee between us boys. Start there, they fear, and pretty soon you’re asking us to ignore wrongdoing or malfeasance or ineptitude in order to be nice, to be kind, to be “civil.”
The answer to the poison of our times is not to ignore corruption or excuse abusers. We absolutely must hold the powerful accountable. But to the “Don’t tell me how to do my job” journalists, I say: Then do your job. We need tough, dogged journalism. But we also need a press that is more concerned about true injustice and abuse, about understanding nuance, than in the verbal eruptions of obscure politicians or this week’s celebrities.
I heard a very smart person say that a focus on civility misses a more important point. Whether we kneel or stand in this debate, if we don’t find a way to move to meaningful conversations then we don’t make a difference. The challenge is to get to meaningful discourse in a culture that is polluted with facile speech and obsessed with easy outrage. It’s fun. It’s cathartic. It earns us likes and re-tweets. But it does nothing to push our civic conversation forward.
So, I see merit in the skeptics’ arguments. My challenge to them all is: If civility is not the right aim, how do we get to where we know we need to be?
A FUNCTIONING MARKETPLACE
The marketplace of ideas has to function so that the ideas get heard, vetted and debated. Without some rules to guide our civic dialogue, it breaks down. If angry soccer fans tar and feather the referee, the integrity of the match and the experiences of players and fans are demeaned. If the lawyers in the courtroom don’t respect the rules of jurisprudence, the judge and jury won’t get to hear the case. That doesn’t mean that judges can’t fail us. But the courts are self-correcting, and we can see the long curve bending toward justice. The answer is persistence and refinement, not burning down the courthouse.
We journalists, politicians, citizens, teachers, political scientists, business owners and campaign donors need to ask ourselves: Is our civic discourse creating smarter, better, more engaged citizens? Or are we creating something else? Are we telling people that politicians are stupid/corrupt/venal? Are we communicating that people who seek public service are incompetent/self-aggrandizing/tools of special interests? Is our public discussion essentially telling young people that working to understand this corrupt morass is a waste of time? Any wonder, then, that many of them decide to turn away, to disengage?
I’ve become persuaded that we have to do better, as suppliers and consumers, at distinguishing opinion from fact. We have to work with schools to help give young people tools that involve news literacy and something more – critical-thinking skills that help them discern fact from propaganda and useful data from the swirling miasma of contemporary media.
If citizens stop caring, stop participating, we all fail. If the result of our public conversation is that we turn people off from reading or voting or getting informed or involved, then we’ve lost readers, customers, citizens, future candidates and volunteers. We may already have discouraged a future Marilyn Shuler or turned off the next Cecil Andrus from taking that first step toward civic life or leadership.
I am encouraged that the discussion about civility and discourse has helped focus new attention on propaganda, fake information and the echo chamber of social media. I’m encouraged that we are talking about broadening “civic literacy” – developing tools to be good citizens, good students, good voters, good readers and good consumers of good journalism. Equipped with the right tools, people can channel their energy into action instead of outrage. We’ll have an engaged citizenry and an energized audience for the work we all are hired or elected or called to do.
I don’t suggest this is easy. There are powerful interests that benefit from the polarization and paranoia. But there are more of us who want to see something better. This is the work of parents and teachers, of schools and colleges, of journalists and politicians, and librarians and social media entrepreneurs and, well, all of us.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.