Civility Project Proposal
By Frank Partsch
Civility Project director
Please give this your serious consideration. Members, please use the NCEW listserv to comment, suggest and criticize. Be as specific as you wish, and as vehement. This project is conducted in the spirit of the First Amendment.
The terrain as we observe it: The constitutional right of free speech brings out the best in us, and the worst. On any given day, Americans can witness free-wheeling political discussion among sincere and often knowledgeable people, in the op-ed pages and academic journals, around the coffee counters and breakfast tables of the land. Sad to say, the conversation sometimes contains elements of ignorance, invective and illogic. As the democratic conversation becomes polluted by disrespect, dishonesty, libel and character assassination, a good number of Americans have concluded that we have a serious problem with incivility in our public life.
The idea of a struggle between civility and incivility gathered force in the days following a gunman’s attack on Jan. 8, 2011, in which Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and a dozen other people were seriously injured and six died. One result has been increasing condemnation of the ugly, contentious, character-assassinating and violence-provoking language that often appears at the margins of the public policy conversation. Various “civility initiatives” have appeared in government and academia, generally aimed at promoting a higher and better means of airing and reconciling social and political differences.
Leaders in the National Conference of Editorial Writers concluded that NCEW had a role to play in the matter. We took note of the fact that “civility” has its roots in “good citizenship.” Opinion writers, in their daily work, often touch on matters affecting citizenship and the quality of public conversation. They are called upon to refute phony arguments and to serve as a truth squad when someone tries to mislead the public. In framing their own arguments, they must constantly evaluate their words against personal and professional canons, as well as the rules of effective argumentation. Few other human undertakings provide so constant and thorough a grounding in the conduct of a civic conversation.
In addition, opinion writers who are members of NCEW have an institutional platform for their efforts to elevate the quality of the national conversation. The organization’s Statement of Basic Principles, approved by the membership in 1975, stresses the values of factualness, logic and fairness in the presentation of journalistic opinion. These principles are relevant to the current discussion; their opposites – distortion, illogic and unfairness – are among the major characteristics of conversational material that is, on its face, uncivil.
The 1975 Principles also argue against the printing of “canned” editorials whose source is not disclosed to the readers. Although this practice is not as common as it once was, the commitment to transparency has new application in the Internet era. Some of the most egregious instances of uncivil speech have originated behind the cloak of anonymity that many institutions, including journalistic institutions, have extended to the public via the anonymous posting functions of the Internet. Relieved of accountability, any would-be provocateur can become a planter of rumors, a spreader of libels or an instigator of violence. The incivility of the era cannot be realistically discussed without considering the culture of irresponsible anonymity that the Internet not only facilitates but, in some instances, encourages.
Initial concerns in conceptualizing a civility project. As word of a Civility Project spread among NCEW members, concerns arose about the intention of the organization and its possible effect on the members. A mistaken idea circulated – that the project intended to impose civility standards on the membership in particular, or opinion journalists in general. This led to an early-September discussion in the NCEW’s electronic discussion forum, during which the mistaken idea appeared to have been at least partially dispelled.
What the Civility Project intends, rather, is to marshal the organizational expertise of NCEW and the individual wisdom of its members to the task of improving the integrity of public discussion.
One phase of the project will deal with initiatives NCEW can pursue as an organization. Another phase will focus on what NCEW members might undertake in their communities on their individual initiative, or with NCEW encouragement. Again, there will be no new standards for the writers of journalistic opinion, or even an attempt to define civility in the context of editorial and column writing.
An organizational response to incivility: NCEW recognizes that more than one factor have conditioned society for the occurrence of incivility in public discourse. One is the simplistic rhetoric of modern campaigning, in which ideological assertion is substituted for appeals based on fact and logic. The adversary is presented as not merely philosophically opposite but morally flawed, its representatives regarded with contempt and its ideas distorted so as to present them in the worst possible light.
This situation is abetted by a lamentable lack of analytical ability on the part of some audiences. Politicians sling mud, as has been said, because mud-slinging works. It generates press coverage. Some voters find mud-slinging understandable in a way that the minutia of public policy discussion are not. The audience must develop the skills to avoid being bamboozled. NCEW intends to comment publicly when an example of bad behavior presents a clear-cut opportunity for educating participants or the public.
Consideration will be given to the production of a handbook on effective argumentation. As preliminarily conceived, we would draw on the rules of rhetoric and journalistic attribution to emphasize the effective marshaling of facts, the application of logic and the sustainable amplification of conclusions. The idea would be to assist the writers of journalistic opinion in the preparation of “airtight” editorial arguments, though conceivably such a booklet might also of use to speechwriters, the preparers of position papers or the fabricators of campaign commercials. Perhaps it could even be made available to other audiences to help sharpen their listening and debating skills – thereby making it harder for speakers to profit from uncivil behavior.
Thought has been given to the staging of one or more “civility workshops” by NCEW, at which the writers of journalistic opinion, and other knowledgeable individuals from outside the journalistic community, would present views on this subject. NCEW would seek sponsorship from sources that have separately concerned themselves with the health of democracy. The intended audience would include political staff members, journalists, academics and others with a personal or professional interest in the subject.
An individual response to incivility – As we have said elsewhere, every opinion writer is the sheriff in his or her own county. There is no better judge of a particular situation than the watchdog who has been on the case all along, knowing the substance and context of the material and the temper of the speakers and audience. Therefore, while NCEW deplores the injection of untruth, illogic and unfairness into the national discussion, the Civility Project defers to the individual members, and their colleagues, to carry out – and intensify if necessary – their traditional activity of exposing and debunking political prevarication in all its forms.
The Civility Project stands by with encouragement and support, but we cannot do more than can be accomplished by a grassroots-level, county-by-county commitment by the writers of journalistic opinion to elevate the quality of the democratic conversation. Savvy politicians will abandon behavior that they know will cause them to be called out in a local forum and subjected to righteous condemnation. Let opinion journalists be the role models, showing how to respectfully press the point without surrendering their passion and intensity.
Let it be emphasized once more. We must recognize that part of the material labeled uncivil in the current political climate might very well fall within the robust give-and-take that occurs within the time-hallowed traditions of free speech. The Civility Project does not seek to redefine political campaigning or reinvent the public-policy conversation. Rather, we focus on the margins where unscrupulous individuals attempt to deceive the public or destroy the opposition with lies, illogic and character assassination. We aim to be persuasive, no matter how great the distance between points of view, in promoting respect, not only for the adversary but also for the audience and for the democratic institutions whose wellbeing depends so much on the wisdom of an informed electorate.
Frank Partsch was the editorial page editor of The Omaha World-Herald for a quarter century.