civility: not too much, not too little

This is the summer for critiques of civility as a virtue or goal. See, for instance, the Color of Change video entitled “Civility Will Not Save Us,” or Tavia Nyong’o’s and Kyla Wazana Tompkins’ argument that “the accusation of incivility is a technique of depoliticization.” For them, the “opposite of civility is not incivility, but militancy.”

I take these points seriously. I have never made civility a core goal. I define my work as civic, but civic doesn’t equal civil. Civic politics surely encompasses militant direct action when the circumstances demand it. It’s true that “civility will not save us” because mass participation and resistance are often needed. If “civility” means being nice to political opponents, or accepting the validity of their claims, then sometimes civility is inappropriate. Frederick Douglass was asked to debate apologists of slavery. The British fascist leader Oswald Mosley invited Bertrand Russell to debate him. Both Douglass and Russell were right to refuse these invitations–some people should be shunned.

Further, demands for civility can represent efforts to suppress worthy activism.  William Chafee’s book Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom is a classic account of how calls for “civility” were used to try to block Martin Luther King.

Yet, I don’t agree that civility lacks value completely. For one thing, it can be rhetorically most effective to take the high ground. In 1965, Bayard Rustin made the case for talking directly to the undecided middle of the US electorate in ways that would persuade them to support the immediate political goals of the Civil Rights Movement (“From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement“). Whenever we move from protesting to trying to determine policy, we need rhetoric that appeals widely. Rustin was an architect of the March on Washington, at which King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” According to my friend Harry Boyte, the organizers of the March distributed flyers that said, “In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words, and even hot insults. But when a whole people speaks to its government, the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government.” They saw that to demonstrate civility was persuasive and empowering.

To be sure, the agenda of the Civil Rights Movement was left unfinished. This week we read of a Trump voter in Alabama who remembers “that Rosa Parks time” as “just a scary time,” when “her parents, fearing violence, had sent her to the country to stay with relatives.” She believes Barack Obama is a Muslim and fears that the memorial to the victims of lynching may stir up “race war.”  The March on Washington hardly converted this person to justice. But it did help to shift more than 50% of American voters to support a set of landmark bills that made a significant difference, and I would credit these victories to a combination of militancy plus civility.

For his part, Donald Trump would be much more popular if he presided over a strong economy, pushed right-wing policies, but refrained from daily violations of basic civility. His tweets may cost him a friendly majority in Congress. They are contrary to justice, but they are also uncivil, and the incivility may cost him worse politically.

These cases illustrate that political success does not (necessarily) trade off against civility. The two can go together.

Further, we can understand civility not as a way of expressing our views but as a set of rhetorical techniques that invite the other person to talk. Douglass would gain nothing from hearing the speech of slavers. He knew from personal experience what slavery meant, and his position was correct. A debate had no value. But I am in a different position from Douglass. My views about most current issues are murky, evolving, and deeply fallible. I could be wrong–in fact, I certainly am wrong about many things, but alas, I don’t know which ones. For me, inviting others to speak is a way of learning. The Civic Commons says (or used to say): “We’re as interested in each other’s opinions as we are in our own. And we act like it.” If that is civility, then it is a valuable stance for anyone who may be wrong—which certainly includes me.

A third argument in favor of civility is that we should strive to live in a democracy that includes an element of public deliberation. Uncivil discourse is not the main barrier to that form of government. The major obstacles are disenfranchisement, the influence of money, and poorly designed political institutions. But the value of good talk should not be set at zero. Learning to listen and speak to all is part of a more complex formula for achieving a deliberative democracy.

In the end, I can’t help turning to old Aristotle for guidance on how to think about civility if we view it as a virtue.

Aristotelian virtues don’t come with algorithms for determining when and how to exercise them. That requires good judgment, attention to the particular circumstances, experience, and tolerance for uncertain outcomes. We can overdo or neglect any virtue by failing to apply practical judgment (phronesis).

The previous paragraph suggests that any virtue is a “mean” between too much and too little. Thus, in the case of civility, we should apply a Goldilocks principle: rhetoric shouldn’t be too cold or too hot for the circumstances, but just right. Both proponents and opponents of civility make valid points–aimed at the excesses and the deficiencies of civility. Exercising the appropriate amount protects you from both critiques. It’s just that it’s hard to know where the mean lies.

Aristotle would also suggest that each virtue intersects with others. A valuable way to reason about whether we are being too civil, or not civil enough, under particular circumstances is to consider related virtues and vices. Is someone’s civility a manifestation of intellectual humility and fallibalism, compassion, and love of peace? Or does it represent complacency, cowardice, and indecision? Is someone’s righteous indignation a sign of love for justice, commitment, solidarity, and courage, or rather a retreat into self-congratulation?

It takes judgment to know. We should be quick to judge ourselves and much slower to criticize others. And we should welcome a variety of responses, because the same norms are not right for all people in all social and political positions.

deliberation or simulated deliberation? choices for the classroom

In an article published today (“Deliberation or Simulated Deliberation?” in Democracy and Education, 26, 1, Article 7), I respond to a valuable previous piece by Margaret S. Crocco and her colleagues, “Deliberating Public Policy Issues with Adolescents: Classroom Dynamics and Sociocultural Considerations.” These authors analyze classroom “deliberations” of current events and find disappointing results. Their analysis is rigorous and insightful. One finding particularly caught my eye.

It is interesting that even students at the school with a large immigrant population tended to talk about immigrants as “they” when they deliberated about national policy. They were essentially role-playing the government or perhaps a body of influential citizens of the United States. As Crocco and her colleagues write, “Participating in the public debate about immigration in U.S. classrooms positions one as an insider with all the privileges of excluding outsiders that result from this status” (Crocco et al., 2018). This is evidence that the students experienced the discussion as a kind of role-play.

That finding leads me to propose that discussions can vary on two dimensions. Talking can result in an actual decision, or it can be about a simulated or hypothetical decision. And the participants can either speak for themselves or role-play characters. Those distinctions produce four types, all of which can be found in actual classrooms (and in settings for adults, such as community fora.)

I think Crocco et al. provide some grounds for skepticism about simulated decision-making discussions in which the speakers represent themselves (cell 3). When we ask students (or adults) to discuss what “we” should do, where the “we” is actually a vast or distant entity, such as the US government, we position them as insiders even though they know they are outsiders. This disjunction could be fun or interesting, but I think often it just alienates.

The other cells are more promising. It’s better to be able to: (1) govern a real entity, such as a student-led association, (2) give advice to a real decision-maker, or (4) pretend that you hold a decision-making role, such as a Senator in a fictional Congress.

There are benign reasons to turn national issues into topics for small-group discussions. The goal is to make students (or others) feel that the government is theirs. It does belong to them, as a matter of justice, and it’s great if they take away that feeling. But we must be serious about their limited power, or they will perceive the discussion as fake and perhaps draw the conclusion that democracy is fundamentally a false promise. As I write in the article:

The students in these three classes did not actually decide about immigration. At most, they might shift their individual opinions on that topic, and if they encouraged others outside the class to change their opinions in similar ways, that could possibly affect national policy by influencing those people’s votes. But that is a remote form of impact for any citizen to consider, and especially for students who are not old enough to vote themselves. The United States is an “Imagined Community” (Anderson, 1991), not a group of people who literally make decisions. The real group—a classroom full of students—was pretending to deliberate.

That is how I would explain why the results were disappointing.

Prompting Deliberation about Nanotechnology: Information, Instruction, and Discussion Effects on Individual Engagement and Knowledge

The 33-page article, Prompting Deliberation about Nanotechnology: Information, Instruction, and Discussion Effects on Individual Engagement and Knowledge (2017), was written by Lisa M. PytlikZillig, Myiah J. Hutchens, Peter Muhlberger, and Alan J. Tomkins, and published in the Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 13: Iss. 2. From the abstract, “Deliberative (and educational) theories typically predict knowledge gains will be enhanced by information structure and discussion. In two studies, we experimentally manipulated key features of deliberative public engagement (information, instructions, and discussion) and measured impacts on cognitive-affective engagement and knowledge about nanotechnology”. Read an excerpt from the article below and find the PDF available for download on the Journal of Public Deliberation site here.

From the introduction…

There are many desirable potential outcomes of participating in public engagements. Learning outcomes are especially important because knowledge is a prerequisite to offering informed policy input, which may make the input more useful and influential (Guston, 2014; Muhlberger & Weber, 2006). Prior research suggests deliberative public engagements, in particular, may improve public understanding of science and technology by providing participants with opportunities to study relevant information as they form their preferences (e.g., Farrar et al., 2010). However, not all studies find positive effects of deliberation (Delli Carpini, Cook, & Jacobs, 2004; Ryfe, 2005), and even when effects are found, it is difficult for researchers to identify the mechanisms responsible (e.g., Sanders, 2012).

Experiments investigating the effects of specific features of public engagement are especially important for advancing theoretical understanding of what features of public engagements work for what purposes and why, and to guide the design of effective engagements (PytlikZillig & Tomkins, 2011). In addition, because of concerns relating to issues of equality and engagement (Benhabib, 2002), it is important to examine potential moderators. Not all publics have equal information or influence relating to political or policy issues, and little research has examined whether certain deliberative mechanisms favor some groups over others (Fraile, 2014; Hickerson & Gastil, 2008; Karpowitz, Mendelberg, & Shaker, 2012).

Deliberative engagements include features such as provision of balanced information, encouragement of deep cognitive engagement, and group discussion (Fishkin & Luskin, 2005). Theory suggests these features may promote increased knowledge and potentially more well-justified attitudes and policy preferences (Chambers, 2003; Mendelberg, 2002). However, there are numerous empirical gaps in these theorized connections. For example, despite the centrality of deep cognitive engagement to deliberative theory, few studies of deliberative practice explicitly measure cognitive engagement, or the variety of other ways people may engage. Even fewer attempt to causally connect different forms of individual engagement to specific deliberative design features and outcomes, such as increased knowledge or understanding.

To begin to fill this gap, in the present studies, we experimentally varied features of deliberation (information, instructions, and discussion), and measured the individual and combined impacts of these features on individual-level engagement and knowledge. Further, we examined potential moderation by two other variables: gender—which is a longstanding basis of political inequality (Benhabib, 2002)—and individual differences in need for cognition (the tendency to enjoy and use effortful and deep thinking processes (Cacioppo, Petty, Feinstein, & Jarvis, 1996)—a variable especially relevant to deliberation.

We conducted our studies in the context of engaging college science students in deliberations about potential ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) associated with nanotechnology. While the college classroom context is not representative of the majority of public engagement contexts, it is one such context, and one that facilitates controlled experimentation. In addition, findings from studies of the design of deliberative discussions in this context can specifically improve the use of deliberative practices when helping students consider ELSI implications of new science and technology developments—a practice which is increasingly encouraged (Barsoum, Sellers, Campbell, Heyer, & Paradise, 2013). Finally, findings in this context may suggest possibilities that should be investigated in other public engagement contexts.

Download the full article from the Journal of Public Deliberation here.

About the Journal of Public DeliberationJournal of Public Deliberation
Spearheaded by the Deliberative Democracy Consortium in collaboration with the International Association of Public Participation, the principal objective of Journal of Public Deliberation (JPD) is to synthesize the research, opinion, projects, experiments and experiences of academics and practitioners in the emerging multi-disciplinary field and political movement called by some “deliberative democracy.” By doing this, we hope to help improve future research endeavors in this field and aid in the transformation of modern representative democracy into a more citizen-friendly form.

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