Examining Civility In A Time Of Deepening Political Divisions

Mar 11, 2019
Originally published on March 11, 2019 8:12 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's a question we've heard for years - whatever happened to civility?

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Lock her up. Lock her up.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And everybody said he beat her...

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HILLARY CLINTON: You could put...

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TRUMP: ...Crooked Hillary.

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CLINTON: ...Half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Lock her up. Lock her up.

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SARAH SANDERS: I was asked to leave because I worked for President Trump.

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MAXINE WATERS: You get out, and you create a crowd. And you tell them they are not welcome.

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MARCO RUBIO: We are reaching a point in this republic where we're not going to be able to solve the simplest of issues.

INSKEEP: This month, we're traveling the country to find out what civility means in these polarizing times. We start with this from NPR's Leila Fadel.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Civility is a word that's used a lot, and when it feels like everyone is yelling at each other, some people yearn for it. Other people hear the word and roll their eyes because it's a much more complicated idea than just being nice. Even those who study civility - we'll meet them in a minute - have different understandings of what it means.

KEITH BYBEE: The baseline of respect that we owe one another in public life.

JONATHAN HAIDT: How to get along better, how to have more productive disagreements.

LYNN ITAGAKI: It does mean politeness, but it's also racialized. It's gendered. It's also classed.

FADEL: Civility is an ancient word from Latin related to the word citizen. And it's this social contract outlining how people should act toward one another. It can be comforting for some, repressive to others - a shape-shifting word.

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TRUMP: In recent days, we've had a broader conversation about the tone and civility of our national dialogue. Everyone will benefit if we can end the politics of personal destruction.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Amen.

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FADEL: That was President Trump last year after a series of pipe bombs were mailed to prominent Democrats and Trump critics. Former President Barack Obama responded to Trump this way.

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BARACK OBAMA: I'm hoping you think it's wrong to hear people spend years, months vilifying people, questioning their patriotism, calling them enemies of the people. And then suddenly, you're concerned about civility.

FADEL: So right now, when Americans are so divided, the term can be used as a blunt instrument to signal superiority or outrage over the other side's terrible behavior.

HAIDT: We're choking on outrage. It's like the way we're spewing CO2 into the atmosphere. Imagine doing that in a closed room. Well, that's kind of what we're doing in our - many aspects of our lives.

FADEL: That's Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University. He reminds us that the nastiness that's seeping into everyday life, with leaders on both sides setting the tone, that did not start in 2016. The groundwork was being laid over decades.

HAIDT: There were generational changes. We lost the greatest generation. We saw rising political polarization since the '80s, and much more intensively since the - around 2000, the Bush versus Gore election.

FADEL: And not only were people disagreeing about politics, they were also starting to really dislike and distrust the other side, which was only amplified by the constant crossfire on cable news.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Bob (ph), the question is not whether it's OK to burn the flag. It's not unconstitutional.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: He said it is OK. But it is...

FADEL: It kept getting angrier and more personal.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Don't speak to me like that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Let's not go there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: And don't say I'm spewing BS.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I said...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: You don't go there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: That is - I did go there.

FADEL: And of course, there's social media.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: If you are just joining us, we are all talking about these two tweets from the president. Let's just go round robin. Dana Bash - the tweet, your response and the response to the response.

FADEL: Twitter is the accelerant for the president, for his critics, and for so many to spew outrage further and faster into the world, sometimes manipulating the truth. Again, Jonathan Haidt.

HAIDT: When we don't trust each other, that means it's very difficult for politicians to compromise. It's very difficult to find win-win solutions. So we're unable to solve our problems, and our democracy becomes - what? - a beacon to the world as to what not to do.

FADEL: And democracies are fragile, Haidt says. Under pressure like this, they can break. But he says this country has been in worse places and survived, from the country's founding to the Civil War, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War - all along the way, leaders have channeled American outrage and then tried to calm it.

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RICHARD NIXON: Let us again learn to debate our differences with civility.

JESSE JACKSON: We must bring back civility...

TED KENNEDY: We will treasure and guard those standards of civility.

GEORGE W. BUSH: And I ask you to join me in setting a tone of civility and respect in Washington.

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BYBEE: The truth of the matter is that Americans have complained about the deterioration of public conduct ever since the founding of the country.

FADEL: Keith Bybee wrote the book "How Civility Works." Today, he says, everyone's fighting because there's no common understanding about what the facts are, how to argue, or even what to argue about. And if you're in the majority, you can deploy the idea of civility to shut down dissenting voices.

BYBEE: You can just say, you know what? What you just said is unacceptably rude - you should be quiet - when the person is actually protesting about the justice or fairness of the current standards of appropriate conduct.

FADEL: Today we call it tone policing. And Bybee says all this back and forth can lead to positive change. It's part of the constant renegotiation of that social contract.

BYBEE: And the real question is not what is creating the sense of civility crisis today, but instead, given our long history of rudeness, what makes us think we can get along at all.

FADEL: But if we could get along better, if civility could somehow be reimagined, there are still fundamental unanswered questions. Who defines it? Who restores it? Who rewrites that social contract?

ITAGAKI: Is it going to mean that you're bringing more people's voices into the political debates?

FADEL: That's Lynn Itagaki of the University of Missouri.

ITAGAKI: Or are you using civility as a way to go back to the old hierarchies and the status quo since the founding of the American Republic, you know, where you only had white male propertied free landowners who were able to vote?

FADEL: Civility, she says, historically comes from a bigoted idea of civilized versus savage. In many instances, it's designed to leave out large swaths of the population. In the early 1900s, women speaking about the right to vote - uncivil, Rosa Parks - uncivil, AIDS activists in the 1980s protesting in dramatic and disruptive ways - uncivil, Black Lives Matter - uncivil.

ITAGAKI: Civility has been about making sure that the hierarchy of the status quo at the moment - which means racial inequality, gender inequality, class inequality - stays permanent.

FADEL: So civility can be used as a tool to build or as a weapon to silence. For some, now is the time to restore civility. And for others, it's a time to be uncivil. Leila Fadel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELGE LIEN TRIO'S "GOROGORO (THUNDERING)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.