07/17/2012 03:08 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2012

Incivility Matters, and You Can Do Something About It

There was a bit of an incivility-fest in Parma, Ohio, recently. The president and Mitt Romney were doing another set of mirror campaign events (which for some reason makes me think of a pas de deux), and a group of labor supporters showed up to protest Romney surrogates Governors Tim Pawlenty and Bobby Jindal. They were exercising the First Amendment in a not terribly civil way (I can think of 18 more productive chants than "Pawlenty go home!"), but the reaction by certain Romney supporters was beyond the uncivil. I think it might have been criminal.

Whether it's a counter-protest by stuffing a handkerchief in someone's mouth, a former House speaker speaking of the current one as a parent might of a child, a group of thoughtless middle schoolers taunting a bus monitor, the when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife canard, or a reporter in the Rose Garden shouting down the president because he mistakenly thought the commander-in-chief had finished talking, too many of us have become too skilled at being rude to one another.

This topic comes up with relative frequency in my circles, in conversations with journalists and others at legacy news organizations (whose online environments feel like unmoderated free-for-alls) or a group of friends on Facebook. Often someone will say something like, "I actually don't think we're any more or less civil than we were 10, 20, 40 or 100 years ago. We just get to see more of it thanks to cable television." I'd take that further. It's not just cable television; it's the entire spectrum of media opportunities, from cable to YouTube, newspaper websites to Gawker and Twitter. But to say we're no less civil than a decade or a century ago misses the point. Sure, Thomas Paine may have called George Washington an apostate, but when he did, it wasn't tweeted to thousands of followers.

It's the ubiquity of incivility that makes it matter. I'm pretty sure ceaseless exposure to examples of us being simply mean to one another has a detrimental effect on our own psyches and our communities. Does it become a self-reinforcing aspect of public discourse? Does its ubiquity normalize it? Those are the questions I worry about. But the most important question we can ask is what, precisely, can we do about it?

A group of social scientists, faith leaders and media organizations is tackling this question, thanks to some funding from the Knight Foundation, which, in addition to its long-standing commitment to journalistic innovation and community strengthening, has a soft spot in its heart for civil discourse. A few months ago, The Akron Beacon Journal began a year-long project devoted to examining why Americans seem so angry and dissatisfied these days. America Today is covering everything from how the recession and foreclosure crisis changed the outlook and optimism of Ohioans to the motives of anonymous commenters on its own site. What's made the coverage so fascinating is seeing the pages of the daily newspaper used for dialogue about how people actually feel about the changes in their lives (as opposed to straightforward coverage of how their lives have changed). And last year, a consortium of local university social scientists launched the Civility Project, at first just to study the problem. Now, with the Beacon Journal's involvement, their efforts have evolved to propose a set of standards which will soon become a public civility metric, inspired by Politifact's Truth-o-meter.

You can read the whole public statement launching the project, but the important part is this:

We believe that to move away from incivility, we must:
  • Set standards for civility in public discourse (a word that comes from citizenship and civilization).
  • Use these standards to identify and publicize moments of incivility in public discourse.
Clear standards for civil discourse can change expectations for appropriate public discourse by public officials, political campaigns, the news media and the public. In effect, such standards can reset the rhetorical thermostat for public debate in Ohio, lowering the temperature of debate to a more civil level.

Applying civility standards to political discourse and disseminating the results will provide incentives for public officials, campaigns, the news media and public to adhere to the standards. In effect, such information serves as a referee in public debate, calling the fouls of incivility and noting the good plays of civil discourse.

Civility Definition and Standards

Civility is a standard of respect toward other people and their opinions that is necessary for constructive dialogue and resolution of issues.

On the one hand, civility is not just politeness or expressions of goodwill -- as welcome as such things may be. Rather, civility is conduct with the broader purpose of constructive dialogue in mind.

On the other hand, civility does not preclude substantive disagreements, vigorous advocacy of points of view, or cogent criticism of alternative perspectives. After all, such things are essential for constructive dialogue.

From this perspective, there are three pillars of civility:
  • The ability to express an opinion while respecting other people.
  • The ability to acknowledge the fact that opinions differ among people.
  • The ability to engage in constructive dialogue with other people.
Three basic standards of civility follow this perspective:
  • Civility disagrees with other opinions without disparaging other people.
  • Civility disagrees with other opinions without deriding other people's opinions.
  • Civility disagrees with other opinions without denigrating discussion with other people.

Applying Civility Standards

Our civility standards can be used to evaluate public statements by answering the following questions:
  • Does the statement contain offensive language, derogatory comments or attacks the motives of another person?
  • Does the statement misrepresent, belittle or dismiss another person's opinion?
  • Does the statement interrupt discourse, disrupt deliberation or escalate conflict in a dialogue with other people?

As a partner to the project, we're collecting feedback on the civility standards and the questions we're using to apply them to public statements and behavior. There are two ways you can participate. First, tell us what you think of the standards, and if you think they can make a difference. Secondly, you can tell us if there are public statements you'd like to run through the Civility Index.

We don't know for sure if this will help improve public discourse, but if the axiom is true that what you pay attention to is what becomes important -- and Politifact's success in getting politicians and candidates to respect facts a bit more is a testament to this -- then the more people we can get to pay attention to this, the better our chances for success. And of course, we hope this isn't just an exercise in playing the unhappy role of Civility Police; we'd like to celebrate and elevate civil discourse where we find it.