Reviving Civility in Public Discourse

A few nights ago, I participated in a panel discussion devoted to the revival of civility, as part of the annual Spirit and Place Festival sponsored by IUPUI. The evening began with a soliloquy of sorts on the subject by former Congressman/Statesman Lee Hamilton, then segued to the panel. I’m not sure any of us had especially useful recommendations for how we might inject mutual respect into political conversations, or ensure that those discussions are based upon verifiable fact, but we tried.

Since I have no idea how Americans of good will might revive civility, or rescue it from the Trumpian depths of Twitter and media comments sections, I took a somewhat different approach to the subject, which I am sharing, below.


When I was asked to participate in this panel, my mind went back twenty years. I was then the Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, and I had mounted a major campaign to promote civility and encourage more civil discourse about hot-button civil liberties issues. Several members objected. They let me know that they were upset–that they thought such an effort was inappropriate because they were convinced that an emphasis on civility somehow undermined, or was evidence of less than robust support for, Free Speech.

That misunderstanding is evidently shared by the Neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, the creators of racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic websites, and participants in proliferating Facebook confrontations and Twitter wars. They defend their vitriol as “Free Speech;” and disparage and dismiss civility as “political correctness.”

They couldn’t be more wrong.

This nation’s Founders understood that all ideas, no matter how noxious, should be available for discussion. They didn’t protect speech because they underestimated the danger bad ideas could pose; they knew how powerful –and damaging–ideas could be. They protected free expression because they understood that giving government the authority to decide which ideas are acceptable—what sort of speech should be permitted– was far more dangerous than the bad ideas themselves.

But that’s where civility comes in.

If free speech is to achieve its purpose—if it is meant to facilitate a process in which citizens consider and vet all ideas, consider all perspectives—we need to listen to each other. Insults, labeling, dismissing, racist “dog whistles”—all those hallmarks of incivility—make it impossible to have the kinds of genuine conversations and productive disagreements that the First Amendment is intended to foster.

Screaming invective across political or religious divides actually undermines the purpose of the First Amendment’s Free Speech provisions. Is such speech protected? Absolutely. Is it useful? Absolutely not.

There are multiple reasons for the recent rise in incivility, but the anonymity and distance afforded by the internet and social media are clearly important contributors. As many of you know, I have a daily blog, and I’ve found it necessary to impose standards of conduct for commenters. Civil disagreements are encouraged; ad hominem attacks, personal nastiness and unrepentant bigotry are not welcome and will not be tolerated, not just because they are unpleasant and hurtful, but because people engaging in those behaviors derail the substantive and instructive disagreements that people with different perspectives need to explore if we are going to live and work together.

Responding to a Facebook argument or Twitter blast with an insult may make you feel better, but it doesn’t advance the conversation, and it certainly doesn’t count as participation in the marketplace of ideas.

Defending obnoxious and uncivil behavior as “Free Speech” is the ultimate hypocrisy.

 

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on November 12, 2017]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..

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