Editor’s note: We write Friday’s Purple State of Mind column then usually post it here Monday. Today is no exception but we do it with sadness as some of what we describe here has gone to seed this weekend in the tragic shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, her staff and other innocent victims in Arizona. Please forgive the somewhat flip tone. Our self-deceptions in how we talk about things can get very very serious.
We’ve got Oxford Unabridged and French-English, heck we’ve even got Urdu-English. But as far as I know there isn’t such a thing as a partisan dictionary. We think it’s high time to remedy the oversight.
Language has a long history of being twisted and torqued to make feuding points. Take the fact that in certain quarters these many years later you’ll still hear references to the “War of Northern Aggression.” Language choice heavily implies causality, justness of cause, and suggests appropriate action. Language can also be fact-bending in ways that damage civic discourse (and certainly damage problem solving based on “facts” that turn out to not be true).
Word choice can strongly suggest an amazing number things about the speaker. For example, references to the “Democrat” party are usually made by heavy talk radio listeners and Fox News watchers, as they don’t represent the name that the actual Democratic party chooses to be called. I’m not sure I get the point of this particular language battle – except maybe bullying – but this kind of linguistic battle can be damaging to both sender and receiver of such ill-willed verbiage, because there is always a fair amount of coming and going around. Read all »
Village Square thumbs up to Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC’s Morning Joe for this dead-on commentary on civility. (Thumbs down to Morning Joe for not including it on the video clips, thereby requiring me to create a transcript…)
JOE: [NYC Mayor Michael] Bloomberg is going to be helping candidates who aren’t bound by rigid ideology and that’s the message we’ve been trying to emphasize here… what we try to do is encourage politicians and thought leaders and all Americans to follow the advice of an old British war poster and create a very simple message: Keep calm and carry on. That was the message that FDR delivered to a battered nation in the depths of the great depression when he declared to all Americans “All we have to fear is fear itself.” It was the message that Bobby Kennedy delivered to a shocked and embittered nation on the night that Martin Luther King was assassinated. And I really do believe that’s the message that Americans need to hear again today.
Because today our nation is confronting a new war and it’s a war of words. We’ve forgotten how to talk to each other. We’ve got political extremists who are dominating the airwaves and dominating the nation debate. And you know what the White House calls the professional left along with what we call the far right now profit from political hate speech that makes our political system weaker. And yet, isn’t it strange that our Washington politicians seem to obsess over those angry voices… instead of seeking out voices of people like you, rational Americans who show respect to their neighbors, who raise their families, who go to work and who play by the rules. It’s time for you, you quiet Americans to respond. Not with angry words or hateful commentaries or setting your hair on fire – calling a Republican president a fascist or a Democratic president a fascist but rather to respond with reasonable voices and a rational debate. Now we’re going to continue like we’ve done for 3 years to encourage viewers and guests to resist the pull of those people on the far right and professional left who seek division. Let’s keep focusing on the task at hand, ensuring that America’s best days lie ahead.
MIKA:What we’ll continue to do here is call out those who preach hate and we’ll continue to celebrate civility and promote open debate where all voices, voices on all sides are welcome. And as Joe and I tried to show you everyday, you can disagree without being disagreeable.
Bob Schieffer’s commentary on yesterday’s Face the Nation:
(CBS) The smart, powerful, sometimes cranky Democratic Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee David Obey has announced he is quitting Congress after four decades because he is “bone tired.”
We came to Washington the same year, 1969, and his announcement reminded me what a different world it was back then when Members didn’t go home every weekend to raise money and actually stayed in Washington and got to know one another.
I can remember social occasions back then when Democrats and Republicans who fought by day, actually enjoyed each other’s company after hours.
No more. They say such awful things about each other today, they’re uneasy socializing and generally don’t.
Not long ago, for example, a staffer for a Congressional leader actually asked if we could provide a private waiting room for his boss who was appearing on “Face the Nation” because the boss didn’t want to share a room with someone from the other party.
In the old days when an old warhorse like Obey retired, members of the other party frequently said something nice (if innocuous). But in Obey’s case, the Republican National Committee spokesman took a final shot, saying it was “understandable that the architect of the President’s failed stimulus package has decided to call it quits.”
And Obey managed a parting shot as well & not at Republicans but at his own party, at the Senate his own party controls.
He said one reason he was leaving was he decided there was more to life “than explaining the ridiculous rules of the Senate to angry, frustrated constituents.”
In 1969, a House Member wouldn’t have said that, either – but he might have thought it!
This is just so good, I can’t think of a single thing to edit out of it. Donald Miller writes on faith issues and he could possibly be a one-person Village Square all by himself: Donald Miller “has appeared at such diverse events as The Democratic National Convention and the Veritas Forum at Harvard.” (For those of you keeping track, this must be credited to (who else but) Internet Surf Queen Lea.)
Back when I was hanging out at Reed College, I was pleased to be in an environment where truth mattered more than ego, or rather where people didn’t associate their identity with their ideas. What I mean is, finding truth was more important than being right. And because finding truth was more important than being right, students were able to learn.
At Reed, discussing a philosophical or even scientific idea around a conference table did not look like a debate. Rather, it looked like a group of students attempting to put together a jig-saw puzzle. If a piece didn’t happen to fit, that was par for the course. You simply set it aside and worked together to make progress.
When we begin to associate our ideas with our identities (I am good because I am right) we lose the ability to be objective. And rather than learning to learn, we simply learn to defend.
To be certain, there are basic truths we must defend, but we don’t defend these ideas from our egos. Dr. Henry Cloud says that truth must go hand in hand with grace in order to be effective. There must be truth, but there must also be acceptance, regardless of whether somebody disagrees. This methodology frees the person to make an objective decision. When we become angry or condescending we take the truth and wrap it in a toxic-candy shell and get frustrated when people don’t like it. Truth wrapped in grace is more easily digested.
So my question is, do you take it personally when somebody disagrees with you? Here are some things I try to remember when engaging in a conversation in which there are differing opinions:
1. Truth is not My Truth, it’s Just Truth: My ideas were not really my invention. Even if I was the first person to consider an idea, it’s still something I stumbled upon. I shouldn’t take it personally when somebody doesn’t agree. They aren’t rejecting me, they are rejecting an idea.
2. Methodology is Part of the Message: When I get defensive and then condescending, what I associate my ideas with an offensive subtext, and that association is very strong to the hearer. Imagine having a conversation with somebody who has terrible breath, standing there and smelling their putrid hot air as they talk. It’s the same with your attitude toward somebody when you’re discussing an idea.
3. Without a Loving Heart, I am Like a Clanging Cymbal: If I don’t genuinely care about the people I’m talking to, I’ll be received like a guy standing there clanging cymbals together. The Bible makes a strong connection between a persons heart and their tongue. We tend to think we talk with our tongues alone, but the Bible says we talk with our tongues and our hearts. Corinthians 13: If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
4. The Other Person has Sovereignty: Even if I think the other person is completely wrong, they have a right to their beliefs. I can simply state what I believe and do so in kindness and that’s really it. If I’m trying to bully somebody into my way of seeing things, I’m not respecting the sovereignty of the person I am talking with.
5. I Could be Wrong: What we most want from the person we are talking to is for them to see things from our perspective and agree. That being said, though, are you willing to see things from their perspective? If not, try listening to their perspective then repeating it back to them. Ask them if you got it right, and if you did, say you will think about it. Then present your idea, too, and ask them if they understand your position. To be honest, they may not be as open as you, but once the conversation is over, I assure you they will have a new respect for you, and believe me, they will consider your ideas more respectfully. And besides, the truth is they could be right.
… the second way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate. These arguments we’re having over government and health care and war and taxes – these are serious arguments. They should arouse people’s passions, and it’s important for everybody to join in the debate, with all the vigor that the maintenance of a free people requires.
But we can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. (Applause.) You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question somebody’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. (Applause.) Throwing around phrases like “socialists” and “Soviet-style takeover” and “fascist” and “right-wing nut” – that may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, our political opponents, to authoritarian, even murderous regimes.
Now, we’ve seen this kind of politics in the past. It’s been practiced by both fringes of the ideological spectrum, by the left and the right, since our nation’s birth. But it’s starting to creep into the center of our discourse. And the problem with it is not the hurt feelings or the bruised egos of the public officials who are criticized. Remember, they signed up for it. Michelle always reminds me of that. (Laughter.) The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning – since, after all, why should we listen to a “fascist,” or a “socialist,” or a “right-wing nut,” or a “left-wing nut”?
It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate, the one we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.
So what do we do? As I found out after a year in the White House, changing this type of politics is not easy. And part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents: Treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect. (Applause.) But civility in this age also requires something more than just asking if we can’t just all get along.
Today’s 24/7 echo-chamber amplifies the most inflammatory soundbites louder and faster than ever before. And it’s also, however, given us unprecedented choice. Whereas most Americans used to get their news from the same three networks over dinner, or a few influential papers on Sunday morning, we now have the option to get our information from any number of blogs or websites or cable news shows. And this can have both a good and bad development for democracy. For if we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we become more polarized, more set in our ways. That will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country.
But if we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from.
Now, this requires us to agree on a certain set of facts to debate from. That’s why we need a vibrant and thriving news business that is separate from opinion makers and talking heads. That’s why we need an educated citizenry that values hard evidence and not just assertion. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously once said, ‘Everybody is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
Still, if you’re somebody who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while. If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. It is essential for our democracy.
And so, too, is the practice of engaging in different experiences with different kinds of people. I look out at this class and I realize for four years at Michigan you have been exposed to diverse thinkers and scholars, professors and students. Don’t narrow that broad intellectual exposure just because you’re leaving here. Instead, seek to expand it. If you grew up in a big city, spend some time with somebody who grew up in a rural town. If you find yourself only hanging around with people of your own race or ethnicity or religion, include people in your circle who have different backgrounds and life experiences. You’ll learn what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, and in the process, you will help to make this democracy work.
According to the National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Jim Leach: “Citizenship is hard. It takes a commitment to listen, watch, read, and think in ways that allow the imagination to put one person in the shoes of another.”
While he’d be too polite to agree with me, by his own measure Jim Leach is the quintessential citizen.
We had the distinct pleasure to spend a day last week learning a thing or two about citizenship from this man who’s had a lot of practice at it, 30 years in Congress and all. Taking a page from Paul Revere – although with a gentlemanly preference toward intentionally less fanfare in the ride, possibly more of a William Dawes (who I admittedly would know nothing about were it not for Lea Marshall and Malcolm Gladwell.… bless them both…) – Leach is setting out to visit every single one of these United States to tell us a thing or two about the high bar that citizenship demands.
While he will be characteristically gentle in the telling, it just could be that a test of citizenship is coming, a test of citizenship is coming.
Leach served at a time when tense work week Congressional fights were followed by weekend signs of friendship across the aisle and probably a bipartisan backyard bar-b-que or two and then, in turn as a democracy demands, another round of philosophical fighting. He served when relationships among legislators were what Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-minded Americans is Tearing Us Apart, refers to as “cross-cutting.” These public servants could be on one “side” here and another “side” there as they went about the business of building a country (which they understood to be their job)… leaving noticeably less room for the evil “they” that seems to have so effectively eclipsed the common “we” just about everywhere these days.
Except we isn’t common at all when it’s part of “We the People,” it is something we should treat with reverence and care. According to Leach, “[c]ertain frameworks of thought define rival ideas. Other frameworks describe enemies.”
It isn’t just anybody who can commit to our historical tradition of complex cross-cutting relationships to serve a greater end. It isn’t just any country that builds itself on such a challenging principle.
There are those who are bonded to our founders because our founders were angry, chafing at authoritarian British rule for freedom.
But the big audacious and nearly-insane-had-it-not-been-so-wildly-successful essence of our founders was so much more than angry. These were men of profound ideas who believed that, despite all of human history before them, “we, the (plain old average) people” could be the boss.
They were willing to sit uncomfortably at the crossroads of ideas, where the comfort of convictions stood regularly challenged and the luxury of entirely dismissing rival ideas probably edged you a wee bit closer to being hung by the king. They had to sit at a knife’s edge, weighing one idea against another in constant struggle for excellence and results. These men had to bring their “A” game to their revolution, and indeed they did. And by challenging ideas as they stayed connected to each other, they made something magnificent.
They made America the City on the Hill in the world no matter what anyone says (thank you very much).
And it is public servants like Jim Leach who carry on their tradition. Please listen to his speech. What is 20 minutes when a country you love may depend on it?
The bad news is that “We the People” cannot be the boss if we’re unwilling to do the hard work of citizenship. The good news is that we come by it naturally.
Like riding a bicycle I hope.
_____________ Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of the Village Square. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
One night last week, I was inspired, however, by a small group of people who are trying to restore civility in public conversation – and therefore help us make better progress in solving our problems. Our big three, the economy, health care, war, are all stymied now by vast differences of opinion and approach – and high levels of mistrust – of each other’s ideas on how to move forward.
The Village Square, an informal civic group that’s now two years old here in Tallahassee, had invited to town former Iowa Republican Congressman Jim Leach, who is now chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Leach isn’t exactly a rock star on a world tour, but he is setting out to visit all 50 states on his mission of reinventing civility as a path to solving some of the above gargantuan problems.
It was just a few days before the earthquake in Haiti when The Nature Conservancy’s Andy McLeod, introducing Leach, spoke of avenues to progress. “Its saving grace is in a society that seeks to cultivate moral sensibility,” he said.
In its government institutions and among its citizens, progress can hardly occur without moral sensibility; that is, respect for each other.
This is notably lacking today with rancor that’s become business-as-usual and widely accepted. Spouting off is habit-forming – if even the loudest spouters realize it’s not very helpful.
Leach is mercifully self-effacing, noting that “few subjects are duller than public manners.” Yet his proposition is a simple challenge that any one of us can apply to ourselves (and our blogs): We can use words, he said, “to bring out our better angels” or we can use them dishonestly to confuse and undermine each other.
When it comes to the rivalry of ideas, Leach said, our choice is to “stir anger, polarize and compel violence” with what we say.
Or, conversely, we can use “healing language” such as Lincoln used in his second inaugural address, inspiring the nation to bind up its Civil War wounds “with malice toward none.”
This isn’t any ole vanilla re-do of Washington’s rules, however. It’s got gravitas:
The Civility Project will be undertaken with organizational guidance from The Papers of George Washington, a Founding Fathers project based at the University’s Alderman Library, and with the inspiration of Judith Martin, who writes the nationally syndicated Miss Manners column in the Washington Post.
Martin and Theodore J. Crackel, editor-in-chief of the Papers of George Washington, met in 2005 when both were being honored at a White House ceremony. So when the Washington Papers staff recently discussed the idea of basing a project on our first president’s famed “Rules of Civility,” Crackel knew right away whom he wanted to enlist.
“I am absolutely delighted to have Judith Martin working with us on this effort,” Crackel said, noting that the columnist will play an active advisory role. “We in the project and the students involved couldn’t have a better adviser.”
We probably won’t sleep nights waiting to hear the results…
Mike Huckabee on political polarization (You can watch this HERE, click on Chapter 10 to get right to this excerpt):
“A lot of it has to do with polarization has come from what has now become the almost criminalization of political candidates. We’re no longer content to disagree with them. We want to destroy them. And it’s a real tragic by product of the political process… No longer is it enough to say that person’s tax policies are going to hurt the country and you ought to try mine. Now it’s that person is a lying cheating weasel and probably doesn’t spend time with his wife and cheat on his kids… I do worry that we’ve lost the capacity to have a disagreement without just being disagreeable. On my show I want to have honest civil conversations with people who are polar opposite of me. Do unto others and you would have them do unto you… ”
There’s a very important incident described in this book that occurred in 1965, when the John Birch Society, an organization these new Americanist groups resemble — the ones who are marching in Washington and holding tea parties. Essentially, very extremist revanchist groups that view politics in a conspiratorial way.
And the John Birch Society during the peak of the Cold War struggle was convinced, and you’re well aware of this, that Dwight Eisenhower was a communist agent, who reported to his brother Milton, and 80 percent of the government was dominated by Communists. Communists were in charge of American education, American health care. They were fluoridating the water to weaken our brains. All of this happened. And at first, [William] Buckley and his fellow intellectuals at NATIONAL REVIEW indulged this. They said, “You know what? Their arguments are absurd, but they believe in the right things. They’re anti-communists. And they’re helping our movement.”
Cause many of them helped Barry Goldwater get nominated in 1964. And then in 1965, Buckley said, “Enough.” Buckley himself had matured politically. He’d run for Mayor of New York. He’d seen how politics really worked. And he said, “We can’t allow ourselves to be discredited by our own fringe.” So, he turned over his own magazine to a denunciation of the John Birch Society. More important, the columns he wrote denouncing what he called its “drivel” were circulated in advance to three of the great conservative Republicans of the day, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, Senator John Tower, from your home state of Texas, and Tower read them on the floor of Congress into the Congressional record. In other words, the intellectual and political leaders of the right drew a line. And that’s what we may not see if we don’t have that kind of leadership on the right now.
As if on cue, yesterday Joe Scarborough called out Glenn Beck:
“We’re going to have a conservatives’ honor roll on this show,” Scarborough continued, referring to his show, Morning Joe. “And trust me, you want to be on this honor roll. I’m talking to you Mitt Romney, and I’m talking to anybody who wants to be president in 2012 — you need to call out this type of hatred. Because it always blows up in your face.
“When you preach this kind of hatred and say that an African American president hates all white people you are playing with fire and bad things can happen and if they do happen, not only is Glenn Beck responsible, but conservatives who don’t call him out are responsible.”
***It’s worth noting that Tanenhaus distinctly does not want conservatism to end. He thinks it’s the heart of so much of what makes America unique.
As someone who has dedicated herself to improving the civility of our public debate for about 4 years now, this has been a depressing week. I believe in my DNA that our country is best served when very different people bring very different ideas to the table, we mix and stir and sometimes get downright angry but we stay connected in a higher cause that we share. That higher cause is our country. I think this is what makes America who we are.
This week I found myself wondering if we still share a higher cause. I think that the reaction to President Obama speaking to children was just sad. We have reached a point where the distrust of a sitting president is so deep, some of us don’t even want our children to hear him speak.
As President Obama entered the joint session of Congress last night, I teared up a bit when the Sergeant-At-Arms announced him. I thought: Here we are disagreeing fantastically and we still have a wonderfully stable state, where the president is announced as he always has been, whatever party he is a part of.
That warm fuzzy feeling lasted until “You lie.” Back to depression.
I want to share with you a wise quote I read a lifetime ago and it’s stuck with me… “You can only be as honest with other people as you are with yourself.” Again, “you can only be as honest with other people as you are with yourself.”
I think we suffer desperately now from a whole truckload of being dishonest with ourselves. We’ve isolated ourselves into hermetically sealed ideological groups. Think Shia and Sunni. We really believe what we say, even if we’re jaw-droppingly factually wrong, because everyone in our hermetically sealed jar thinks it’s true. We really believe the other person is a shameful liar, and we don’t trust them, and it’s just a skip and a hop from there to thinking they’re evil.
I often ask myself where this stops and how? Again, think Shia and Sunni.
Look, a lot of the conservative movement in this country is conducting itself in a way that is tremendously destructive. Both of the basic constitutional compact of the requirements of good faith and of their own good sense. I mean, when you were going on the air and calling the President of the United States a Nazi as Rush Limbaugh has repeatedly done. When Mark Levin — you mentioned him — he said the President of the United States is literally at war with the American people.
And then people begin, unsurprisingly, showing up at rallies with guns. Well, obviously, if the President were– I mean, folks, if I believed the President of the United States were a Nazi, were planning a Fascist takeover, it would be contemptibly cowardly of me not to do everything in my power, including contemplating violence, to resist such a thing. Every decent person should do that.
That’s why you don’t say it when it’s not true. And I mean, one of the ways that the constitutional system works is with some understanding that the people on the other side have slightly different priorities but they share your constitutional values. They have invested in the same system. The problems they’ve got are hard problems. And even if you don’t like their answers, you have to have some restraint in the way you talk about them, as you would hope they would have about you.
And I think it’s just outrageous. It is dangerous. It’s dangerous for the whole constitutional system. Now, I’m absolutely prepared to fight with them. And by the way, it’s dangerous to conservatives because the effect of the talk of people like Levin and Rush Limbaugh is to kill our cause with voters who are under 65.
You make that man the face and you say let us contrast him to Barack Obama who is maybe too expensive but who seems calm and judicious? That’s an ugly comparison.
If you didn’t see this today, skip the words… just watch the tape.
“He never was petty. He was never small and in the process of his doing, he made everyone he worked with bigger, both his adversaries as well as his allies. Don’t you find it remarkable that one of the most partisan liberal men in the last century serving in the Senate had so many of his foes embrace him? Because they know he made them bigger, he made them more graceful by the way he conducted himself.
“You know, he changed the circumstances of tens of millions of Americans in a literal sense. He changed also another aspect of it as I observed about him. He changed not only their physical circumstance, he changed how they looked at themselves and how they looked at one another. That’s remarkable… I just hope we remember how he treated other people, and how he made other people look at themselves and look at one another. That will be the truly fundamentally unifying legacy of Teddy Kennedy’s life if that happens, and it will for a while, at least in the Senate.”