What Does it Mean to be Civil?
Posted by Hal Movius
What does it mean to be civil?
If one is cordial to a murderer in the face of an atrocity he has committed, does that make one civil?
If one advocates in a reasoned way for policies that a majority of citizens view as “extreme” – is that incivility? For example, what if parties work calmly to reach a solution that calls for imprisoning some political dissidents rather than all of them. Is that civil?
If one has noble goals but negotiates with political counterparts in an underhanded way (intimidation, misrepresentation, delay tactics, etc.) to reach a noble outcome, is that civil?
By most accounts we are have become increasingly polarized and uncivil nation over the last 30 years. There are a variety of views for how we've gotten here. A recent Op-Ed in the Washington Post suggests that Republicans are largely to blame for the current gridlock in our nation’s capitol. In the view of the authors, Republicans have become more extreme in their policy proposals, in their tactics (i.e. use of a filibuster) and in their deliberate efforts to ignore science and data generally as a basis for policy-making.
On the other hand, a great deal of research by social psychologists show that all human beings use “motivated reasoning” to reach conclusions that are consistent with our previous beliefs or that protect our self-regard. We selectively find examples that confirm our views and ignore or discount examples to the contrary. And with the popular press increasingly devolving to a “marketplace of ideas,” it has never been easier to find ideas that we like and to ignore ones we don’t. Thus, an Annenberg study found that viewers who watch MSNBC are more likely to believe that Republicans have said uncivil things, while those watching Fox felt that way about Democrats.
Moreover, as Jon Haidt’s compelling book explains, people on the Left and Right weigh different moral principles as a basis for deciding what is moral and just, and what isn’t.
If we accept that differing moral instincts can guide political behavior and reasoning, and confront the reality of a splintered media landscape, it seems to me that we need a more nuanced definition of “civility”. We need one that expands on the narrow notion of remaining interpersonally calm and cordial and using careful, inoffensive language.
An expanded view of what it means to be “civil” might require three related forms of analysis:
1) A rhetorical analysis of the politeness of the tone and language used in communications between those parties. This is currently the most common and narrowest form of analysis.
2) A consequentialist analysis of the estimated consequences of policies themselves from different points of view (e.g. through a lens of moral principles). This analysis would almost always require clarification of the assumptions made by parties in forecasting the effects of policies. For example, Democrats and Republicans strongly disagree on the likely effects of tax rate reductions.
3) An instrumental analysis of the good faith of disagreeing parties to negotiate with a goal of meeting one another’s most important interests (i.e., underlying goals and concerns).
If one proceeds with a multifaceted view of what it means to be “civil” then it becomes more possible to see how parties who strongly disagree might reasonably see themselves as being “civil” and see the other side quite differently. It’s not only that the parties rely on different sources of news and information; it’s also that they have different notions of “civility.”
If you believe, as some Republicans do, that the consequences of loose or inconsistent federal immigration policy threatens the moral and economic fabric of American culture, then you might see impassioned denunciations as “civil” in the sense that they preserve civilization (a consequentialist analysis).
If, on the other hand, you listen to their denunciations and hear extreme rhetoric – inflammatory characterizations of immigrants and Democrats, for example, then you hear incivility.
If you believe the President has promised action on immigration but done nothing, you might feel he has been underhanded and therefore lacking in civility (an instrumental analysis).
Rhetorical analyses are most common because rhetoric is explicit and easy to identify and measure. Both consequentialist and instrumental analyses are prone to attribution errors – the tendency to attribute beliefs, traits and attitudes to others based on their observable behavior. Thus, Paul Ryan’s budget is ludicrous and cruel in the eyes of some economists because of the estimated consequences and because of its perceived extremity. Ryan would disagree on the likely consequences, but might quote Goldwater’s famous dictum: “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice”.
The Democrats, for their part, can point to GOP refusal to confirm routine justice appointments and to vote down job creation provisions that they had previously supported. Each side can point to what they see as “bad faith” on the part of the other with respect to the failed budget talks. These rely on intuitively instrumental analyses of civility.
Democrats might also point to the current Republican antipathy toward a range of scientific studies that can and should impact policy-making, from public health and gun control efforts to global climate change. On this count, the GOP has failed a test of civility by refusing to engage in a reasonable debate about the consequences of inaction. Instead, they have too often hidden behind conspiracy theories that paint the entire academic and scientific establishment – and even most of the press – as somehow colluding to restrict the personal freedoms of the American people. (Why they would want to do so is less clear.)
To my mind an expanded definition of “civility” allows for a deeper understanding of how parties can become polarized in their views of one another, and how each side might accuse the other of being “uncivil” on quite different grounds. It can also serve as a basis for deeper analysis and commentary by both the media and key opinion leaders.
At a moment where there are so many major problems to tackle, it is reasonable but not sufficient to keep score of who has said nasty things in nasty ways. To say something meaningful about what it means to be civil, we need a more nuanced way of thinking and talking about civility, and a broader toolkit for intervening in ways that can promote it.