Civility as we pursue it is the ability to disagree productively with others, respecting their sincerity and decency. It does not mean that you will come to an agreement with others, but simply won’t villainize them in a way that invariably leads to an inability to compromise, harsh words, and other ugly behavior. Recently, many have taken issue with those in their workplace, like Peter Thiel at Facebook, who have supported Donald Trump’s campaign. As Mark Zuckerberg writes , it is easy to be civil with people we agree with, but trying to create an environment that respects people of all viewpoints requires us to give people the benefit of the doubt – that disagreement does not necessarily come from a place of evil. The full letter, posted internally to Facebook employees, is shown above and is well worth reading.
One of our main evidence-based recommendations is to try to find common goals when seeking to unite groups that have a moral conflict. Recently, two events have gotten me thinking about how to apply this more specifically to the current political division through a relatively benign shared goal – the goal of staying true to the founding fathers’ idea of American Democracy.
I recently attended a gathering of concerned citizens – liberal and conservative – put on by Better Angels. While most of us in the room were very politically active and gathered out of a concern for rising polarization, we recognized that we had challenges in getting less politically active citizens engaged in the relatively abstract and uninspiring goal of “depolarizing” American politics. We had particular issues in attracting more conservative citizens for whom rhetoric around conflict reduction can seem like code words for liberal ways of thinking. We were lucky enough to have some conservative representation in the room, which is a testament to Better Angels’ network, and they felt that the positive goal of promoting the American democratic ideal was indeed something they (and perhaps conservatives like them) would gravitate toward. Given that common goals are a proven way to bring groups together and that waiting for the next 9/11 style attack or war to provide that goal, our nation seems in need of a common goal that can indeed unite us in relatively peaceful times – and specifically a goal that can get conservatives and liberals both interested in increasing civility in politics.
Around this time, Donald Trump has been engaging in rhetoric that seems designed to undermine our faith in democratic institutions, by pointedly failing to reassure citizens that he would accept the results of the election and facilitate a peaceful, civil transfer of power. In light of our gathering’s suggestion for a common goal, I couldn’t help but notice how Trump’s rhetoric united many liberals and conservatives in their defense of our electoral system. Consider this essays penned by the loser of the Republican loser of the 2008 election.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, who lost the 2008 presidential election as the Republican nominee, slammed Trump’s behavior Thursday, penning a lengthy statement that never once mentioned his party’s candidate.
“All Arizonans and all Americans should be confident in the integrity of our elections,” McCain said in a statement Thursday. “Free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power are the pride of our country, and the envy of much of the world because they are the means to protecting our most cherished values, the right to liberty and equal justice.”
“There have been irregularities in our elections, sometimes even fraud, but never to an extent that it affected the outcome. We should all be proud of that, and respect the decision of the majority even when we disagree with it. Especially when we disagree with it,” he added.
McCain went on to discuss the results of the 2008 election.
“I didn’t like the outcome of the 2008 election,” he said. “But I had a duty to concede, and I did so without reluctance. A concession isn’t just an exercise in graciousness. It is an act of respect for the will of the American people, a respect that is every American leader’s first responsibility.
Many more Republicans have either criticized Trump’s remarks or attempted to walk them back for him, suggesting that the ideal of American Democracy is indeed strong enough to transcend partisanship. It is also something that groups like The Village Square use to great effect in their programming. So perhaps the next time you’re seeking something to bridge a liberal-conservative divide in your community, family or city – consider respect for the unique nature of American Democracy itself as a common goal that we can all work toward together.
For those of you looking for a break from the everyday partisanship that characterizes this election season, you can catch Civil Politics on 2 recent radio shows/podcasts.
Professor Matt Motyl and Liz Joyner of the Village Square were recently on this episode of Science Friday. What was notable for me in this episode were some of the stories that dovetailed well with our recommendations, such as an elected Democrat in rural conservative Wisconsin who go to where she was by making friends with people first, rather than starting with politics.
I also had the pleasure of being interviewed for Peace Talks Radio (listen here), where I was able to convey many of the same messages that we relate on this website regarding the importance of relationships and of moving away from competitive inter-group dynamics.
As political events in Europe and America got stranger and more violent over the last year, I found myself thinking of the phrase “things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” I didn’t know its origin so I looked it up, found the poem The Second Coming, by W. B. Yeats, and found a great deal of wisdom. Yeats wrote it in 1919, just after the First World War and at the beginning of the Irish War of Independence.
Here is the first stanza:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The last two lines point to moral psychology—people full of passionate intensity—as one of the reasons why things fall apart and the centre cannot hold. This analysis fits with many books written about the causes of political violence and genocide (see Baumeister; Fiske & Rai; and my book, The Righteous Mind). It also fits my analysis of why things are falling apart on American college campuses.
I therefore used the poem as the leitmotif of a talk I gave last week at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention, in Denver, where I offered my most complete statement ever on the causes and consequences of political polarization. I focused on the causes of America’s political dysfunction and then extended the analysis to Europe as well. Something is going wrong in Western liberal democracies; there is something we’re not understanding.
But as long as I had the opportunity to address the largest gathering of psychologists in the world, I wanted to extend the analysis to psychology too. I showed how we, as a field, have gotten politically polarized, as with so many other academic disciplines, professions, and institutions. We have become part of the problem, and it is damaging our science and our ability to help our clients, patients, and students. I proposed that we must fix ourselves before we can become part of the solution.
Here is the entire talk (54 minutes), including an introduction from Susan McDaniel, the president of APA.
I hope that the talk will be useful in high school and college courses on civics, political science, and social psychology. I am therefore posting the slides, both as a PowerPoint file and as a 12 page PDF file. (I encourage their use by educators at all levels.)
I also hope that the talk will help people to understand our mission here at Heterodox Academy. Polarization and political purification are happening to so many institutions. For institutions that aim to discover truth, such as a university, ideological purification is deadly. Pleasing but false ideas go unchallenged. Unpleasant but true ideas don’t get a hearing. Until we figure out ways to increase viewpoint diversity and to end the intimidation and ostracism experienced by those who question orthodoxy on campus, universities will be part of our national problem, not part of the solution.