Viewpoint: Civility Is Overrated

Politics doesn’t need to be more nice; it needs to be more real

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Jeff Haynes / Reuters

Vice President Joe Biden makes a point in front of Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan and moderator Martha Raddatz during their debate in Danville, Ky., on Oct. 11, 2012

What ever happened to civility in politics? That lament is getting louder these days. (Though never quite as loud as the TV shoutfests like last week’s vice-presidential debate that prompt it.) Hobbesian campaign ads — nasty, brutish and short — are making the airwaves toxic. Professional polemicists are infecting the culture with outrageous claims and slanders. If tonight’s presidential debate gets ugly — the Obama camp is promising more feistiness, and in a controversy over the rules, moderator Candy Crowley is promising to pose candidates challenging questions — we’ll hear the lament anew.

Yet for all this, the notion that we need a more civil politics is only half right — and the half that’s wrong is dangerously wrong.

(MORE: The Real Problem with Televised Debates: The Viewers)

Civility is hot right now. Organizations across the U.S. are springing up to promote more civil discourse. Some of these initiatives arose in the aftermath of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Others have been under way for many years. To be sure, civility and politeness are preferable to coarseness and snarkiness, and a conversation is nicer than a screaming match. It’s certainly possible to have fierce disagreements in a respectful tone. That’s what we teach our children, and it seems our political leaders should be held to at least that standard. The problem is, focusing on civility makes us pay disproportionate attention to the part of politics that’s rational. Which is tiny. Democracy is not just about dialogue and deliberation; it’s also — in fact, primarily — about blood and guts. What we fear, what we love, what we hate, how we belong: this is the stuff of how most people participate in politics, if they participate at all.

(MORE: Jonathan Haidt on Romney, Obama and the New Culture War over Fairness)

That’s certainly been the case with the grassroots segment of the Tea Party and the shorter-lived Occupy movement. If war is “politics by other means,” as Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz famously put it, then these two half-articulate expressions of populist anger remind us that politics is war by other means. Humans by nature fight over privilege, status and power. We engage in battles that challenge identities and threaten interests — and thus excite passions.

It’s right to want to convert that combative instinct into nonviolent expressions like legislative action. But it’s wrong to imagine that the instinct itself can be legislated out of existence. The Constitution our framers gave us did not ask that we be mild or moderate; it anticipated and channeled our immoderation.

(MORE: Why We Should Be Arguing More over the Constitution)

The danger with pushing for more civility is that it can make politics seem denatured, cut off from why we even have politics. As a Democrat, I want to see more anger, not less, about today’s levels of inequality and self-reinforcing wealth concentration. I want that anger to swell into a new Progressive Era. And as an American, I need to understand better the true sources of anger and fear on the right and the ways those emotions and intuitions yield political beliefs. For all the formulaic shouting in our politics, we don’t often hear the visceral, emotional core of what our fellow citizens on the other side are trying to express.

Instead of making a fetish of civility, then, let’s get to that core. What’s undermining your sense of place? Who do you blame for your condition? Why does this policy offend you so? This kind of moral engagement can get plenty uncivil. But if it’s honest, it can create understanding, maybe even empathy, and a respect that surface courtesy sometimes belies. We Americans are stuck with one another. The best way to make that a virtue isn’t to have more polite arguments but to have less superficial ones.

19 comments
RhedNiele
RhedNiele

Some excellent comments here. I wish our politicians would read many of them and take heed. My question/point is very simple - who do you tend to listen to with an open mind? Someone sceaming their unwavering certainty about an issue or someone who approaches you with a civilized "let's talk" approach? My experience in life has demonstrated that those who strongly and wholeheartedly believe what they're saying don't need to scream in your face to make their point. The fact that both parties have resorted to such tactics has made me more inclined to turn a deaf ear to anything either of them are saying. Gandhi's famous quote, "Be the change you wish to see in the world" seems like pretty good advice to follow.

Trajan Saldana
Trajan Saldana

i've studied past presidential elections...when the heck were they ever civil? more clever and witty, perhaps but civil? no

Belisarius85
Belisarius85

I'm conservative, and I fully understand how poverty and wealth can both be self-reinforcing, and I believe that the government can (and should) take some role in breaking the cycle and ensuring a lasting meritocracy. I wouldn't even mind paying significantly higher taxes for it.

But I want to see realistic plans and fair results. The Democrats' solutions always seem to involve making the government's influence bigger but not better, and they want to base a lot of their assumptions on feel-good PC nonsense instead of the cold, hard facts. As it stands, I feel like the government would do more good by throwing my tax money in a big pit and burning it than by whatever it's currently doing.

The Republicans aren't much better, but they tend to wind up harming me and my children less than the Democrats.

stormtorque
stormtorque

I feel the reason republicans are obsessed with the idea of people taking from them, is because our country-wide job opportunites and availability are dismal. absolutely dismal. as this occurs, more people need more help, and with less jobs to pay and pitch in publically for this help, republicans feel encroached upon. what I feel republicans need to understand, though, is that their leaders, in trying to oust unions and drive wages down for more profits, and shipping jobs by the millions oversees, CAUSED this problem of not enough decently paying jobs, consequently causing less people to have to pay for more services for the unemployed. Their republican leaders started unnecessary wars that have cost a billion dollars a week for the past almost ten years. the blame should be understood and shared by their republican  leaders that have caused present day problems, instead of all blame going towards the fear of communism and sucking individuals.

Belisarius85
Belisarius85

With respect, I think you need to study economics a bit more, or just spend some more time thinking about this issue.

The root of the problem is free trade. It allows US consumers to buy things really cheap, but it forces most American corporations to compete with overseas rivals from areas with much lower average wages. If said American corporations do not either "ship jobs overseas" or reduces wages for their American employees, they'll either go out of business or be acquired by their more ruthless competitors. If they go out of business, no one has a job. If they are acquired by a ruthless competitor, wages will be lowered anyways. American corporations have no choice but to fight unions and try to lower wages in order to survive.

Capitalism as a whole is like an idiot savant. It can do certain things amazingly well, but it has next to no common sense or capacity for long-term thinking. It has to rely on it's big brother Society to take care of it.

If you want "enough decently paying jobs" you either have to be competitive enough in a global environment, or you can just get rid of the various free trade agreements and pay a lot more for your various goods. What you cannot do is hobble American businesses with unions and high labor costs and expect them to survive the onslaught from foreign businesses.

Talendria
Talendria

I respect Mr. Liu's assessment of many issues, but I disagree that honesty and civility are necessarily at odds.  One of the reasons I spend so much time on this site is that I'm trying to set an example of thoughtful, respectful debate.  I have a lot of experience dodging political land mines because my parents are rabid Republicans and my in-laws are card-carrying Communists.  I have my own opinions, but I don't hate them for theirs.  In a weird way I respect them, and I'm glad my son has access to such diverse points of view.

One of my fears--and the reason I no longer support Obama--is that I feel he's creating a Robin Hood scenario in this country.  When my son was six or seven, I read that book to him several times because he loved the story so much.  We had many discussions about whether Robin was a hero or a villain.  He murdered someone in a fit of anger.  He stole indiscriminately from rich people.  He lived like an outlaw and encouraged others to do the same.  And he's a hero?  Not to me.  My son disagrees, I think, and that's his prerogative.  He may feel differently when he's spent 40 years working and saving only to have his pockets turned out.

My greater fear--assuming I can steer clear of the angry mob--is that after we're done taking from the rich and giving to the poor, it still won't be enough.  The poor will still want more, and there will be no one left to take from.  Then our economy will collapse.  My son's college fund and my retirement funds (such as they are) will be worthless or worth much less.  I believe socialism is an economic black hole, and history supports that point of view.

My experience has taught me that if you work hard and make good choices, you can be successful in America.  My husband and I both started out really poor, yet we've managed to build a comfortable life for ourselves.  I have compassion for people who are struggling, and I help them whenever I can.  However I don't feel their circumstances are by definition unjust.  When I examine the choices they've made (teenaged pregnancy, drugs, gambling, bad marriages, overspending) it seems like the outcome was fairly predictable.

Almost all of my extended family is poor, and at times I do feel guilty for having a nicer house and fewer financial worries than they do.  Then I remember all the times they teased me when we were kids for having my nose in a book instead doing whatever cool thing they were doing at the time, and I feel less guilty.  I share my good fortune with them in the form of gifts because I love them not because I feel responsible for their lack of wealth.

I'm not saying everything is fair and square in this country.  I do think the rich should pay more taxes.  I currently pay 25-30%, and I'd like to see the wealthy pay at least that much if not a little more.  And I do think every job should pay a living wage, even if it means higher consumer prices.  But the whole Robin Hood thing is not only offensive to me but potentially dangerous for all of us.

I think that was both honest and civil.  ;)

Rene  Arizmendi
Rene Arizmendi

@LA_Triathlete:disqus Why don't you look to yourself for solutions instead of relying on anger to intimidate others. $85 an hour! Seriously I don't know why more people haven't tried this, I work two shifts, 2 hours in the day and 2 in the evening…And whats awesome is Im working from home so I get more time with my kids. Heres where I went,>>..Xfd.qlnk.Net

stormtorque
stormtorque

civility in politics is crucial. when you win the presidency, you're governing AMERICANS- not just democrats or republicans. otherwise you have tools like Romney saying I only represent the half of the country that votes for me. And won't worry about the other half. that doesn't exactly bring a warm, come-together, think- about- my- concerns, fuzzy feeling to the other half that would also be under his leadership.

stormtorque
stormtorque

Civility works only when both sides engage in it. Somewhere along the line I feel loudmouths like Rush, Gingrich, Coulter  and the fox news channel started

openly and continuously displaying  contempt for civil values the

democrats normally have prized, like diplomacy, negotiation, tolerance

and compromise. And as this has occured, it has pushed  normally more mild- mannered progressives into a likewise hostile and combative mindset. what has caused the furor is not that republicans openly and regularly show contempt for  what normally

passes as respect and tolerance by dems, but that democrats have come to

say that they won;t play so sweetly and nicely anymore either. I would

prefer dialogue between the parties to solve actual issues, but that

won;t happen while you have republicans saying their only goal in

congress is to kick out the sitting democratic president, stalling

everything and treating democrats like dirt for years. our cultural values of civility changed the moment president Bush I

can do what I want and i do not care if it's illegal, against our

traditional ideas of dialogue and , and runs contrary to international

law. our culture has picked that up and now people advocate the idea of

politics as mere sport- you're a winner or a loser. and since nobody wants to lose, and compromise is seen as that, it's winner take all- but our political system was never meant to work as that and so we're stalled on doing ANYTHING. at all. 

stormtorque
stormtorque

Civility works only when both sides engage in it. Somewhere along the line I feel loudmouths like Rush, Gingrich, Coulter  and the fox news channel started

openly and continuously displaying  contempt for civil values the

democrats normally have prized, like diplomacy, negotiation, tolerance

and compromise. And as this has occured, it has pushed  normally more mild- mannered progressives into a likewise hostile and combative mindset. what has caused the furor is not that republicans openly and regularly show contempt for  what normally

passes as respect and tolerance by dems, but that democrats have come to

say that they won;t play so sweetly and nicely anymore either. I would

prefer dialogue between the parties to solve actual issues, but that

won;t happen while you have republicans saying their only goal in

congress is to kick out the sitting democratic president, stalling

everything and treating democrats like dirt for years. our cultural values of civility changed the moment president Bush I

can do what I want and i do not care if it's illegal, against our

traditional ideas of dialogue and , and runs contrary to international

law. our culture has picked that up and now people advocate the idea of

politics as mere sport- you're a winner or a loser. and since nobody wants to lose, and compromise is seen as that, it's winner take all- but our political system was never meant to work as that and so we're stalled on doing ANYTHING. at all. 

stormtorque
stormtorque

Civility works only when both sides engage in it. Somewhere along the line I feel loudmouths like Rush, Gingrich, Coulter  and the fox news channel started

openly and continuously displaying  contempt for civil values the

democrats normally have prized, like diplomacy, negotiation, tolerance

and compromise. And as this has occured, it has pushed  normally more mild- mannered progressives into a likewise hostile and combative mindset. what has caused the furor is not that republicans openly and regularly show contempt for  what normally

passes as respect and tolerance by dems, but that democrats have come to

say that they won;t play so sweetly and nicely anymore either. I would

prefer dialogue between the parties to solve actual issues, but that

won;t happen while you have republicans saying their only goal in

congress is to kick out the sitting democratic president, stalling

everything and treating democrats like dirt for years. our cultural values of civility changed the moment president Bush I

can do what I want and i do not care if it's illegal, against our

traditional ideas of dialogue and , and runs contrary to international

law. our culture has picked that up and now people advocate the idea of

politics as mere sport- you're a winner or a loser. and since nobody wants to lose, and compromise is seen as that, it's winner take all- but our political system was never meant to work as that and so we're stalled on doing ANYTHING. at all. 

stormtorque
stormtorque

Civility works only when both sides engage in it. Somewhere along the line I feel loudmouths like Rush, Gingrich, Coulter  and the fox news channel started openly and continuously displaying  contempt for civil values the democrats normally have prized, like diplomacy, negotiation, tolerance and compromise. And as this has occured, it has pushed  normally more mild- mannered progressives into a likewise hostile and combative mindset. what has caused the furor is not that republicans openly and regularly show contempt for  what normally passes as respect and tolerance by dems, but that democrats have come to say that they won;t play so sweetly and nicely anymore either. I would prefer dialogue between the parties to solve actual issues, but that won;t happen while you have republicans saying their only goal in congress is to kick out the sitting democratic president, stalling everything and treating democrats like dirt for years. our cultural values of civility changed the moment president Bush I can do what I want and i do not care if it's illegal, against our traditional ideas of dialogue and , and runs contrary to international law. our culture has picked that up and now people advocate the idea of politics as mere sport- you're a winner or a loser. and since nobody wants to lose, and compromise is seen as that, it's winner take all- but our political system was never meant to work as that and so we're stalled on doing ANYTHING. at all. 

ReadyToMoveOn
ReadyToMoveOn

Hmmmm............ questions.

The author of the above article, Eric Liu asks:

"What’s undermining your sense of place?"

"Who do you blame for your condition?"

"Why does this policy offend you so?"

In response I ask:

Why do you have so little self respect and self esteem?

Why do you blame others for your failures and inadequacies?

Why are you so sensitive that the legitimate expression of other people's ideas is offensive to you?

and I'll add:

Why are you so whiny?  

Why don't you look to yourself for solutions instead of relying on anger to intimidate others into doing for you so you don't have to do for yourself?

What was the massive failure of your development as a human being that turned you into a Liberal?

CharlieAdamsInKY
CharlieAdamsInKY

 You were going well up until your last sentence.  Considering that so-called "conservatives" lead the pack by orders of magnitude where incivility of debate is concerned, you've just demonstrated that your own "failure of development as a human being" dwarfs the author's by those same orders of magnitude.  Just another right-wing a__h___.

ReadyToMoveOn
ReadyToMoveOn

Charlie,

Reading your post, and then rereading my own, I must concede that I was out of line with that last line.

Apologies to all.

RTMO

CharlieAdamsInKY
CharlieAdamsInKY

 In that event, I retract *my* last remark and extend my apologies as well.

LA_Triathlete
LA_Triathlete

Political discussions, polite or not, are largely a waste of time.  Both sides come into the discussion convinced that they are absolutely correct, and that the other side is absolutely wrong.  Neither side is willing or able to acknowledge the concerns and points of the other side, nor the shortcomings or faults of their own position.  Understanding and empathy are nonexistent.  In order to hear, let alone understand, the other side's argument, one must be willing to acknowledge the uncertainties and imperfections of their own position.  This is impossible if both sides are certain they are right and the other is wrong.  Both sides would do well to remember the following quote from Voltaire: "Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position, but certainty is absurd."  Alas, that almost never happens.  What almost always happens is both sides talk past each other, spend their entire time attacking and defending, and in the end walk away completely unchanged with no deeper understanding of the other than at the start.  The entire conversation might as well have never occurred.  The only possible benefit is to maybe reach those few who are sitting on the fence undecided.

Kodiak_G
Kodiak_G

Scholar of incivility in political discourse here. A couple of thoughts: the framers, for one, did believe civility in discourse  was important (even if they did not always engage in civil discussions)--there are many quotes from John Jay reflecting on the importance of civility, and debate during the Constitutional Convention was cut off at times when discourse became too uncivil so as to let cooler heads prevail. Secondly, the "fetish of civility" is not about promoting "superficial discussion." In fact, it is the opposite--political psychologists have found that exposure to political information you are averse to (and by averse, I do not just mean disagree with, but rather a genuine psychological repugnance) closes minds, resulting in individuals refusing to compromise, seeing less legitimacy in alternative views, and relying more on preexisting views. Incivility  induces feelings of aversion in individuals--this means that uncivil conversations tend to be shout fests where everybody is making his or her point but not really considering views they disagree with. This strikes me as a superficial conversation.

Mr. Liu is also conflating passion with incivility. They are related, in that displays of incivility are often passionate, but not the same thing. One can passionately make the case for--in Mr. Liu's case--reducing inequality without insulting someone who disagrees with him. Yes, we want conversations to be "real" and do not want people to hold back thoughts and opinions for PC purposes. But at the same time, rampant incivility by no means guarantees a more fruitful discussion, and a civil conversation does need be devoid of passion or conflict.

CharlieAdamsInKY
CharlieAdamsInKY

 I agree.  Once the words "socialist", "communist", etc, come into play (which, these days, is almost from the very first sentence), I don't really care what actual points that person may try to make; my answer to everything is gonna be "F*** you and the horse you rode in on" from that point forward.  That's not "discussion" or "debate".  Which is, often as not, the very *reason* people resort to that crap so quickly: they don't actually *want* discussion or debate.