Tuesday, August 10, 2010

How do you fix incivility?

This piece in the New Yorker describes the conditions in the US Senate.  By nearly all accounts, the Senate is incapable of carrying out its deliberative role in a civil way, and as a result it is either paralyzed by the intransigence of the minority party, or diminished by the naked use of power by the majority party.

In one way or another, public deliberations in many other places--state legislatures, shareholder meetings, parent-teacher conferences, faculty meetings--are similarly frustrated.

Incivility in public life has of course birthed many proposals on how to resolve it.  The ones I know of fall into four categories:

1. the pledge: people who would otherwise act uncivilly take a pledge in advance that they will respect each other.  Rebecca Attwood in Inside Higher Education reported on the work of Geoff Shamrock who has created a "Hippocratic Oath" for faculty and administrators.  John Kesler, an attorney and activist in Salt Lake City has proposed a series of rules for civil behavior in Utah's governmental bodies.

2. casuistry: Albert Johnson and Stephen Toulmin wrote the classic book on the virtues of casuistry, or arguing by the specifics of the case. Their position is this: that arguing from abstract moral principles leads to impasses; working from specifics allows people who would otherwise not talk to each other (parties to the abortion debate, for example) can find agreement on specific issues (reducing teen pregnancies in the poor neighborhoods of St. Louis, for example).  Utah leaders are trying this approach on our own tough issues, starting with the designation of public lands as wilderness.

3. first principles: The moral philosopher Michael Sandel proposed in a recent TED talk that debate ought to focus on first principles instead of cases.  His position is this: people on different sides of policy issues may in fact hold similar positions on the core issues behind the policy disagreement. Conservatives and liberals may both value fairness highly, they just see its application differently.  So talking about fairness instead of the details of health care allocations can forge common ground.

4. third parties: Here the view is that a neutral third party with a reputation for fairness and impartiality can help parties to a conflict come to a compromise position at least minimally acceptable to the disagreeing parties.  This approach has somehow lodged itself in the legal system, where confrontation is otherwise seen as the fastest pathway to a victory.

I am certain that each approach works in specific settings (which I guess makes me a casuist), but their differences mask a common assumption--that spoken disagreements can be resolved by more talking.

There is certainly truth here, but people intent on solving incivility might ask whether actions rather than words might do more to resolve disagreement.  There is a hint of this in the history of the Senate, where opponents used to eat, live, and travel together.  Today that happens no longer.

There is poetic and philosophical support to the view as well--Emily Dickinson's injunction to "tell all the truth but tell it slant," Jon Kay's suggestion that goals are best reached via "Obliquity."

But for me the most compelling evidence is experiential: people who work side-by-side on a project unrelated to their disagreement are likely to develop a common bond that can supersede spoken disagreement.  This is the result of many service-learning and neighborhood work projects; it is the wisdom behind mundane committee service; it is an outcome of responding to disaster.

In the long run, of course, none of these solutions is a solution.  They are, instead, responses to problems,  cough drops, not cures for a cough.  But the trend among people worried about incivility seems to be to talk about it.  Why not act instead?

1 comment:

lionofzion said...

I'm not sure either words or actions can be enough to fix some forms of incivility without being preceded by a shift of fundamental belief. Which is to say that more than either words or actions, incivility seems rooted in the belief that your opponents are evil/dangerous/untrustable/incivil and therefore there's no point in treating them well.

This belief has to change before civility can develop. The change may come through the joint action you describe, or through another means, but before opponents trust each other, there will be no civility. And uncivil opponents lay many seeds for mistrust.