For nearly 200 years the U.S. Supreme Court was made up of men. Then came Sandra Day O’Connor.
Guest Host: Derek McGinty
A recent survey of likely voters finds that 76 percent say civility has declined over the last decade, to the point where most Americans believe the lack of civility in politics is a “crisis.” In that same survey, twice as many voters blame Republican candidate Donald Trump for the rising incivility. He has called his opponent in this race “the devil,” “a liar” and “a nasty woman.” Some say what we are seeing in this election reflects a change in the culture of manners and decorum, including a blurring of the lines between private and public talk. Guest host Derek McGinty and guests discuss the decline of civility, a divisive presidential election and what it could mean for the democratic process.
- Deborah Tannen Professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of many books, including "The Argument Culture" and most recently, "You Were Always Mom's Favorite."
- Jim Rutenberg Media columnist, The New York Times; former chief political correspondent, The New York Times Magazine
- Eric Liu Founder and CEO, Citizen University and executive director, Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program; author of several books, including "A Chinaman's Chance," "The Gardens of Democracy" and "The Accidental Asian."
- Cassandra Dahnke Co-founder and president, Institute for Civility in Government, Houston, TX; author of “Reclaiming Civility in the Public Square – 10 Rules that Work”
MR. DEREK MCGINTYWell, thanks for joining us. I'm Derek McGinty. Diane Rehm is traveling to New York City, where she's getting an award from the International Women's Media Foundation. Well, if you're like me, and you routinely like to check the comments sections after reading a news story just to see how nasty folks can get, it comes as no surprise to you that three-quarters of Americans say civility has declined in recent times.
MR. DEREK MCGINTYBut what does remain a bit stunning is just how foul things have become. Presidential candidates don't even shake hands, supporters on each side call each other traitors or criminals or worse. Our social media is a minefield, where mob rule has the power to devastate lives. We are treating each other badly, folks, and it's getting worse.
MR. DEREK MCGINTYJoining me now in the studio to talk about the decline of civility and what it could mean for our democratic process, heck, or even our ability to live together is Deborah Tannen of Georgetown University, who has written a number of books around linguistics and communication, Cassandra Dahnke of the Institute for Civility in Government, and from the NPR bureau in New York City, Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times, and from a studio in Seattle, Washington, Eric Liu of Citizen University and the Aspen Institute.
MR. DEREK MCGINTYSince we're talking about communications, we'd really like to hear from you. The number here, 800-433-8850, 800-433-8850. And we'll be taking your phone calls and questions and comments as our conversation moves along. Deborah Tannen, I'll start with you. First of all, welcome to all four of you. But Deborah, what are we talking about when we say civility, and where did it go?
MS. DEBORAH TANNENI think when people say civility, they often mean a lot of different things. For most of us, we think of it as a level of politeness, so for example, holding the door for the person behind you. What we're dealing with now goes beyond that. It's a kind of verbal violence, almost. Maybe the metaphor would be you slam the face in -- the door in the face of the person behind you.
MCGINTYEspecially if they're going to vote for someone else in the next election.
TANNEN(laugh) Yeah, and I think what we're seeing today is the culmination of a process that started way back. If you recall, oh, I think it was like 2004, '05, Dick Cheney used the F-word, insulting Patrick Leahy on the floor of the Senate, people were shocked. He was asked about, and he said he wasn't sorry, that he felt better afterwards.
TANNENThat he had been forceful. So, and from the -- when John McCain with -- when he was running against Hillary Clinton, and there was quite a lot of publicity where someone said, how can we beat the bitch, and he didn't in any way object to the language and said, yeah, that's a good question. So we have been leading up to this, but I think in recent -- this recent campaign, it's reached a new high or a new low, really, of insults, slurs.
TANNENAnd I do want to point out one thing, though. There's a tendency to talk about it as if it's the same on both sides. Some people call this two-side-ism. Today's Washington Post, for example, headline, the candidates are attacking each other. But if you read the first paragraph, they're saying the Clinton campaign is accusing Trump of a lack of respect for women, and the Trump campaign is accusing the -- saying the polls are rigged and phony. Those are really not parallel attacks.
MCGINTYAll right, fair enough. Cassandra Dahnke, I think the conventional wisdom is that most of us would like things to be better. Is that really true, though? Are we doing what we want to do?
MS. CASSANDRA DAHNKEWell, I think the vast majority of people would like us to behave better, but there is that element out there, and we need to not fool ourselves, there is an element out there that wants nothing to do with civility, and they're very clear and very open about that. They see no value in it, and they don't care to engage in it.
MS. CASSANDRA DAHNKEWhat we have seen more recently, and I think the reason we're on this show, is because as the years have progressed, there is a growing awareness about what an important role civility plays in our lives and community. Civility is one of those things you don't really miss until it's gone, and then you're like, well, what happened to that, where's the glue that holds us together.
MS. CASSANDRA DAHNKEAnd so I think there is a growing awareness and concern now among all those people who do value civility that it is rapidly disappearing, if not gone.
MCGINTYJim Rutenberg, is this a function of the fact that we have sort of lost any respect for rules, all the things that we're sort of told you don't do this, and this is bad form, and these are bad manners? A lot of that stuff's gone by the wayside.
MR. JIM RUTENBERGI feel like in a way that's a good point because in this kind of -- in the new social media sphere, what we're finding is if, you know, I wrote a column about lack of civility on Twitter, to put it nicely, because it's vicious out there, and anti-Semitic at times and racist at times in this campaign, and what you immediately got back was you're -- here's the mainstream media trying to infringe upon everybody else's free speech. So to even raise the idea that you could make the same points without, you know, racism, sexism, name-calling is -- that's, you know, gets in the way of this anything goes idea of free speech.
MR. JIM RUTENBERGAnd it wasn't -- anything goes is not, like, in the Constitution quite so, you know, quite in the same way that they're trying to say.
MCGINTYEric Liu, your thoughts?
MR. ERIC LIUWell, you know, I, as a citizen, as a father, as a neighbor, I of course prefer civility to incivility, and I agree with Cassandra that it is one of those things that you don't particularly notice until it's gone. At the same time, I'm not sure I want to make a fetish out of civility. I think, you know, we are in a time of great disruption in our politics. We are at a time of incredible inequality and, you know, injustice that has come to light in part because of new media technologies.
MR. ERIC LIUAnd part of the rawness and the coarseness of our politics today is a reflection that people across the left are not particularly happy with politics as usual and with the status quo. And so, you know, I think there is a place for anger and passion, and sometimes calls for civility can, you know, intentionally or not, have the effect of trying to quash some of that new found passion that's getting injected into the discourse.
TANNENYeah, I think that's a fair observation. I wrote a book called "The Argument Culture" about our tendency to approach everything as a fight. And I make some of those points here that it's corrosive to the human spirit to be surrounded by vitriol. It makes all of us feel vulnerable and under attack. But I also make the point there that I quote actually the poet Charles Simic, who has lived in a totalitarian regime, he's Yugoslavian, that when you're confronted with real injustice, it's -- you must speak out in the strongest possible terms.
TANNENBut I would still make a distinction between anger and speaking out against actual injustice that you see versus spewing -- spewing hatred and spewing venom.
MCGINTYI think -- I think the thing that becomes the most disheartening is when you see that very personal attack on someone with whom you disagree, and one of the things, I tweeted this out a while ago, I said the thing that disturbs me most about this election is that neither side thinks that the other side has a person worth voting for in any way. They can't imagine how you could be that stupid to vote for the other guy or gal.
DAHNKEWell I want to go back a little bit to what Deborah was saying, and the truth is we all have a bad day, we all need a place to vent, but there are times and places to do that. And within the public sphere or public conversations, you don't have to be obnoxious to make your point, and in fact you can often make it better if you're not. It can be more better heard.
DAHNKEBut it's very easy to go from disagreeing with someone to disliking them and from disliking them to demeaning them and from demeaning them to villainizing them and from villainizing them to victimizing them. It's a very, very, very slippery slope, and if we think we're not capable of sliding down that slope, we're seriously mistaken. And that's why I think it's really important to try to hold that standard of civility, even when somebody's right up in your face.
MCGINTYYou know, but we've had disagreeable politics before, Jim Rutenberg. How did we end up in this place, where the disagreeableness becomes so personal?
RUTENBERGI mean, I think we do have a candidate whose political style, in Mr. Trump, is very in your face. Sometimes he's an insult comic, right, and there are times when people laugh along with it from both parties, and there are times when it goes too far. And the one thing I wanted to say, to follow up on my last point, was that there's one -- it's one thing to be a little bit even abusive in your commentary, but sometimes we're getting to the point where -- and the candidate does not do this, Mr. Trump does not do this, but some people who follow him on social media, it'll come into the kind of more threatening sort of language.
RUTENBERGIn fact, you know, we've seen Jewish writers lately getting pictures of ovens, this is going to be your family, this is where your family is going to reside next. You know, so I think what some people have asked, and the candidate hasn't done it yet, is ask Mr. Trump, well, you don't go this far with your rhetoric, can you telegraph to supporters that you don't find that helpful, and he hasn't done that. But he has used the insult in a way that I've never seen in my life covering politics.
MCGINTYJim Rutenberg is a media columnist for The New York Times and former chief political correspondent for The New York Times Magazine. He's at the NPR bureau in New York City. At a studio at KUOW in Seattle is Eric Liu, founder and CEO of Citizen University, executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program. Here in the studio with me, Cassandra Dahnke, co-founder of the Institute for Civility in Government, which is a nonpartisan Houston, Texas-based group that stages civility workshops around the country. And Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, author of many books, including, as she mentioned, "The Argument Culture." I'm Derek McGinty, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show.
MCGINTYWelcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Derek McGinty in for Diane. And we continue our conversation regarding civility or the lack thereof in our political discussions and perhaps everywhere else in our public life these days. I've got a couple of emails I want to share that sort of seem to take opposite sides of the argument. One says, "many, including myself, feel that political correctness is an effort to control language in the U.S. The past decade has seen the left say terrible things about the right, sometimes under the guise of humor. Trump represents a movement to free speech for all."
MCGINTYThen, email -- then Rex from Indiana says, "it seems to me much of this incivility rises from the dislike of a certain segment of society for so-called political correctness. Such folks are so dismissive of PC that they've also, in some cases, decided that simple politeness is the same thing." Deborah Tannen.
TANNENWell, political correctness is a kind of an epithet in itself. I think that's the point that Eric Liu made earlier and it's a valid one, that people can use a cause for civility as an excuse, as a cover to silence people they disagree with. But I think the term political correctness is not helpful here. We're trying to describe the extremities which cross a line.
TANNENWe're not talking about anybody not being allowed to express any opinion at all. But when it becomes belligerent, when it becomes vitriolic, when it becomes personal, when it becomes threatening -- and that was a point that Jim Rutenberg made that I think is a really important one. We do see cases where physical fights are breaking out, physical attacks follow because of the level of hatred and animosity that is stirred up by a certain kind of rhetoric. And absolutely, social media play a huge role here.
TANNENThe anonymity makes it possible for people to be far more personally vitriolic than they would be if they were facing an actual person, face to face. This is true in our personal lives as well...
TANNEN...by the way. Some years ago, I did an extended study of the workplace. And almost without fail, conflicts that arose were because of one way communication. Someone had left a voicemail or sent an email and they just get so carried away with their own anger that they just kind -- they kind of pile on more and more and more, in a way they would not do...
TANNEN...if an actual person were in front of them.
MCGINTYEric Liu, you want to get involved in that?
LIUWell, you know, I think, well I really wanted to pick up both on what Deborah and Jim had said earlier. You know, one of the challenges in reckoning with this question of civility is that sometimes we can mistake form for substance. You know, the problem with Donald Trump as a candidate has not primarily been that he's been uncivil in his tone, although he often has. It's that he's said things and behaved in ways that have been outright bigoted, misogynistic, you know, some people would say seditious and generally dismissive of democracy. Like, that is offensive, right? And the tone amplifies that.
LIUBut if you think about one of, you know, his very prominent champions, who he hasn't disavowed, David Duke -- as far as I know, David Duke, who shares many and maybe even more extreme views, has been nothing but civil in public life. He's extremely polite. And so I think there's a way in which civility isn't quite the issue. You know, I think, in a way, we're actually fortunate how coarse Donald Trump has been. Because it reveals the substantive coarseness of some of the ideas he's actually been trumpeting and it just lays it there.
DAHNKEI think we need to think about what we mean by civility. And as soon as we say the word, there's a lot of different impressions that come to people's minds. At the Institute, we define civility as claiming and caring for one's identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else's in the process. So it's not just about the way you say it, it's also the substance of what you say. I also think that people forget that words are formative. And once you put them out there, you don't have any control over how people are going to perceive them or what they're going to do with them, how they're going to act upon them. And I think that's some of what we're seeing between what Donald Trump says and what some of his followers do. And it goes on both sides.
MCGINTYLet's get to Larry in Pensacola, Fla. Thanks for waiting. You're on the air.
LARRYI'm here. I had the experience just this morning, offering a, what we call a devotional lesson to a Bible study group. And having been a political science professor for 40 years and a locally elected official for 24 years, I was very concerned about this issue of civility in government and in social life. And so I chose to speak on that at -- explain it, pointing out that the incivility of this election -- presidential election seems to me to be -- it is, unprecedented in my lifetime, in the 13 elections that I've seen previously -- that incivility is very, potentially harmful to our society. It could even lead to a revival of violent extremism on both sides.
LARRYAnd finally, that it's un-Christian. That as Christians, (unintelligible) should turn the other cheek and love one another, et cetera, et cetera. I was met with a, basically -- well, basically, I was rebuffed. Everyone who spoke up following me basically disagreed with me. They wouldn't -- they did not accept it. They rejected it. There were a few who said nothing. Perhaps they agreed with me. But no one really knows because they were intimidated about saying anything. It was a very sad experience.
MCGINTYThat sounds like a pretty sad experience, Larry. That's disheartening to say the least. Let's go to James in Fayetteville, N.C. You're on the air.
JAMESYes, sir. I'm 47. I spent 21 years in the Army. I retired in 2011. This is what we need to hear. I -- Donald Trump is the one we need up in there. He says what is ever on everybody's mind. They -- people don't -- might not like it. But there's a lot of us that are thinking in the same place that he is. We need this right here. We don't need any more politicians taking care of it. And as far as what the gentleman just said, yes, we need Christianity back where it belongs. We need to put it back in the churches and back in the schools and back into the government. That's -- that means a lot. Without it, we're a fallen society. We cannot be -- I have been around the Muslim nation. I have been over to Iraq seven times. They are barbaric.
JAMESThe minute we let them in here and we let them take over our culture is the minute we have lost all of America.
MCGINTYWell, you know, James, it's interesting to me and you've made a point a lot of folks have made. I wonder, though, when you say it's important to reestablish Christianity, is it particularly Christian to say, for example, that other people aren't worthy of your concern. And it would -- I mean, shouldn't you be, as our last caller suggested, willing to turn the other cheek, as it were?
JAMESYou can't turn the cheek but so many times. If you keep turning the cheek, what are you going to do? What are you going to have left? Are you going to turn everybody's cheek? Are you going to turn yourself -- are you going to turn your back on your own people, your own Americans that are here?
LIUDerek, this is, you know, I would love to speak to that point that James has just made here. Because I think one of the realities -- and we're hearing it, just in the spirit of that little interchange here -- is that a problem in our politics right now deeper than courtesy or civility is just a dehumanization. And that's either of people who are others abroad or elsewhere or immigrants or Muslims or just other in the sense of, you know, the other party, the other side. And I think one of the things that is just so fundamentally important, and social media makes this hard, is to try to do what Larry described. Unsuccessfully maybe this time, but -- and that is face-to-face rehumanizing our civic life.
LIUIt's really hard to look someone in the eye and tell them that they're a no-good traitor, or to look someone in the eye and say that they are worthless and their lives don't matter. It's way easier to do that on social media and that feeds the coarseness. But so much of our -- what ails our politics is just that we've completely dehumanized. And it's going to take a -- I think a generation-long effort to rehumanize in ways that really, frankly, don't depend on presidential candidates.
LIUIt really is about us as citizens deciding, we're going to see one another. We're going to hear one another. You know, I don't agree necessarily with what James said or his world view, but I hear his anger, his fear. I hear his pride. I hear some of the emotional currents that are stirring in there. And those are human currents. And for me to just say that James is barbaric or James is an idiot is only going to compound the problem.
RUTENBERGYou know it's interesting here, though -- and it goes to Eric's initial point that we don't want to quash certain kinds of speech -- you know, a large portion of the country wants to have this conversation in the terms that the last caller used. And in fact, you know, there was a very good story in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend that Facebook -- some of the staffers at Facebook found what some of Trump was saying about his Muslim ban -- ban, proposed Muslim ban, to fall into the category of hate speech and they wanted to block it. And I think the Facebook management wisely said, we can't block a major candidate's political speech.
RUTENBERGThat said, you know, I think that there has to be a way where we, as a culture, if we, again, have a portion of the electorate that wants to have this conversation and therefore deserves this conversation, that it could be done in a way that everyone agrees, you know, that there are certain terms as a society that we are going to speak in. And that's when it devolves into the insults or the, to me -- again, those concerning rape threats and death threats -- that's where, you know, social media -- the kind of managers to the social media also have to come together to try to rein that in and find something that we all agree on.
RUTENBERGBecause when radio was a new medium, the country and government and politics, everyone kind of agreed there were going to be a set of standards. And we no longer have that.
MCGINTYYou know, I want to get back to something Eric said, though, which is the need to see and hear and understand the other guy's point of view.
DAHNKEAbsolutely. One of our rules in our book, "Reclaiming Civility in the Public Square: 10 Rules that Work," one of our rules is relationship is everything. And it is so important to take the time to get to know one another, not just on the surface but to know what's behind the things we're saying. And I think that that's been so well pointed out here on this show, that you can hear the pride, you can hear the concerns, more than just the words that are used or the tone with which they're said.
TANNENYeah. So I made that point earlier that even in our face -- in our everyday communication, we are more vitriolic, if -- and we're angry if the person is not in front of us. Sadly, this is the way society has been developing and is going to keep developing. So the days when all your everyday interactions with people you knew, the village, that's just not the way the world works anymore. And we've gotten more and more distant. Social media is like the extreme of that. And it's how people are getting their news now, how they're relating to each other. It is part of everyday life.
TANNENMaybe the kind of elephant in the room here, people -- the vulnerability of this sort of communication is ratcheted up for people who are already vulnerable.
TANNENSo it's going to be against Jews, as Jim Rutenberg said. It's going to be against African-Americans and against women. The threats -- the level of vitriol and threats against women has been way out of proportion to what men in public life are exposed to. And you can hear this from any woman who has been out there in any way -- journalists who have written articles -- the women are exposed to threats of rape, threats of murder, threats of destroying their reputations, that are out of proportion to what men are subjected to.
MCGINTYI'm Derek McGinty and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." My guests here in the studio, Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. She's author of many books, including most recently, "You Were Always Mom's Favorite." Cassandra Dahnke is co-founder of the Institute for Civility in Government. Joining us from a NPR bureau in New York City is Jim Rutenberg, media columnist for The New York Times. And out of KUOW in Seattle, Eric Liu, founder and CEO of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program.
MCGINTYI'm Derek McGinty. The number here, 433-8850, 800-433-8850. Zachary in Raleigh, N.C., thanks for waiting.
ZACHARYAbsolutely. Glad to be here. So I'm a 21-year-old independent here in Raleigh. I'm actually getting ready to go into class, so I'm glad you took my call now. (laugh) Being from the South, I've always grown up pretty conservative. But lately I've been just disgusted by the lack of civility in Donald Trump. And I've been waiting for a long time for Hillary Clinton to step up and reach out to people like me. But it seems to me that even she is more interested in stirring up her base against the villain of Donald Trump.
ZACHARYIn my opinion, we began to lose civility when we lost interest in reaching out to the other side and instead opted just to try to motivate our electoral bases. When we lost interest in governing and chose to instead focus on winning. It seems to me that so much of our lack of civil talk is simply trying to score points in some sort of political game we have going on.
MCGINTYWell, Jim, you've covered politics for a while. Is that your take on what's gone wrong? Or was it the other way around, and as people became so divided, it really became more profitable to just appeal to your base because there weren't very many persuadable voters out there?
RUTENBERGI think it's kind of a combination of all of the above. We've watched -- and I've watched this each presidential election -- I feel as if the conversation gets that much farther away from the work of the White House and governing this country. This is -- and so when you kind of untether the debate from the real issues in Washington -- which everyone's going to be surprised by when they come back, right, and maybe some people are going to be bored with them -- that you take it into this sort of smash-mouthed circus level of politics.
RUTENBERGThen you add in the permanent campaign, winning at all costs, one-upmanship, and then layer upon that, social media, and see how movements can be sort of fueled by media and on their own. They don't need to go through the party structure. So I think it's been this, again, this great snowballing effect, where our politics are so removed from the things that actually have to happen to govern the country and keep it on track or get it on track, depending on your perspective.
MCGINTYYou know, what people have brought up the fact that, you know...
MCGINTY...not being known, anonymity, is a part of the problem. And as one person sent us on our Twitter account, "the use of Facebook and Twitter has contributed, in my belief, to the decline of civility in political discourse." Do you see that, Deborah?
TANNENI do. It's the anonymity. It's the distance. It's a kind of a crowd effect. You hear everybody else yelling on those media and so you think that's the way you're supposed to talk, so you yell too. So I think all of that is true. And I think there are these other huge forces going on. The confusion of entertainment and information. So at one, you know, if you think some years ago the news was an isolated report and, you know, there wasn't a lot of competition. You listened to ABC, NBC or CBS. And now there is so much competition for the attention of listeners and readers and it's 24-7, so there isn't a lot of time to check what's going on. I think there's this feeling that fights are fun to watch.
TANNENAnd so, you know, put the scandal on the front page, whether or not the scandal has anything to it. And I, unfortunately, that's a process that we've seen. And we see the effects, where you hear people saying they don't trust Hillary because of all the scandals, even though, one by one, they've been shown to have no basis.
MCGINTYI've got to stop you right there, Deborah. We'll be right back. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."
MCGINTYWelcome back to the Diane Rehm Show. I'm Derek McGinty, sitting in for Diane as we continue our very civil conversation in here about how uncivil the conversation has gotten out there, at least in our political discourse and perhaps in other parts of our lives, as well. And we've got an email here from someone named Jan, (PH) and I want to throw this at our newspaper man guest, Jim Rutenberg, who is in New York City right now. Jan says, Jim, that "I have always read various papers from multiple viewpoints, the WSJ's, the Wall Street Journal's website's comments sections have become so uncivilized, I'm close to unsubscribing. Do major news outlets not monitor their content? I find the lack of civility chilling." What do you think?
RUTENBERGYou know, this is interesting, and it's a big kind of debate, and there are efforts all over the country to try to rein this in. The problem is that you get these -- especially the bigger papers, but I think everyone struggles with it, you get a floodgate of -- just a flood of comments, a lot of them are nasty, and the staffing that you need to sort of weed through them and block the bad ones is huge.
RUTENBERGAnd so sometimes they slip through, and different newspapers have different approaches. The Times, they still get through way too much for us, but we are more restrictive, and you'll see that our comments are -- sometimes there's a smaller number than other newspapers because we try to kind of be a little bit more selective, but it's really hard.
RUTENBERGAnd, you know, this is what Twitter is struggling with writ large, on a huge scale, because they're an open platform, and they're trying to figure out how do we block the hate speech. And this was kind of my point earlier when I referred to the Constitution. I'm afraid it'll be misinterpreted. What I meant was that a Facebook or Twitter, they don't -- the Constitution does not command them to accept death threats on their sites and -- but they can't find them all because there's just a flood of comments.
RUTENBERGAnd they're trying to work our computer programs, algorithms, that can find them and block them, but you have problems where then things that shouldn't be blocked get blocked. So it is really hard. It's the technology getting ahead of humanity.
MCGINTYYou know, it's funny because locally here in Washington, D.C., the Washington Post, they say when -- on their website, if a story is very controversial, they just won't have comments, they just don't have any at all, things that are just too...
LIUOne of the things...
MCGINTYYeah, go ahead, Eric.
LIUSo, you know, actually if you look at even the comments on the website for the Diane Rehm Show, I mean, there's just a torrent of comments, some of which are not particularly civil. But I think there's a deeper thing that I want to return to, and it goes back to something that Deborah was saying earlier and indeed the argument culture that she was describing, and that is this.
LIUI don't think that the goal for us, as much coarseness as there is out there, should be to have nicer or quieter arguments. It's simply to have -- the goal should be to have less stupid arguments. You know, we will always have arguments in American politics. American life, the American idea is an argument. There are kind of polar difference between people who value liberty versus those who value equality, people who believe in strong central government versus those who believe in strong local, people who believe in color blindness versus people who believe in color consciousness, people who believe this is fundamentally a white Western nation and those who believe that this is a multicultural hybrid nation.
LIUYou know, these are not things that you can just split the difference and say it's all good. I mean, these are deeply held views, and we're going to have arguments on them that play out, particularly again, in times where the tectonic plates of power in society are shifting. You know, these are not normal times. And so I think we have to allow for the arguments to unfold. The idea of simply making them less stupid (laugh) means simply to have them be informed more not only by history but again by each other's views and world views so that you're not only yelling into echo chambers.
LIUAnd, you know, I think if you look about -- look at the last few years of political life, whether it's the Trump movement, the Sanders movement, Black Lives Matter, the Tea Party, you know, there's a lot of disruption right now that sometimes is impolite, and I don't discount it all because it's impolite, but I'm looking for the nuggets in each of those movements where people are making, you know, more interesting, more provocative arguments and challenging our thinking in ways that, again, advance this American debate.
MCGINTYYou know, I'm interested, though, and struck by the fact that in the House and the Senate, they refer to each other by these very elaborate titles, right, the distinguished gentleman from so-and-so, you know, and even when they're having a very intense argument, they use these elaborate, respectful titles. It's almost kind of funny because you know they really are angry with each other.
MCGINTYBut at the same time, it does sort of maintain a level of civility, right? I mean, if I'm calling you the distinguished gentleman from so-and-so, I'm unlikely to drop the F-bomb, (laugh) as you described one person, I think Dick Cheney, did earlier. So there's a -- there's a way to argue, I guess is the point I'm making.
DAHNKEThere is a way to argue, and civility does mean consensus. We're not the Institute for Consensus in Government, and so a lot of what Eric said I agree with. We do need to claim those differences, we do need to be passionate, we do need to be engaged. It's just the way we choose to do it that does make a difference. And a few years ago we had a national event, and Dr. Cornell William Clayton from Washington State University had just written a book, "Civility and Democracy in America," where he had done the statistical studies to show how divided and polarized we have become as a nation.
DAHNKEAnd he said, well, the good old days were not necessarily always the good old days. There has been a time when we have been just as polarized as we are now, and it was just before the Civil War. So that should give us some pause, if nothing else, just to consider which way we want to develop our culture. Do we want to be more polarized and antagonistic not just in our government but in our lives together and community, or do we want to try to build respect and cooperative effort, knowing that there are always going to be those people who want no part of that and who will be disruptive no matter what.
RUTENBERGIf you think about the...
MCGINTYDerek (PH) in Rockville, Maryland, thanks for waiting, you're on the air.
DEREKHi yeah, thank you, I think that we're losing a little bit of the main point here. I think it's more important to focus on what is being said as opposed to how it's being said because when you focus just on how, it's extremely superficial, and let me just give you an example. I'm sort of from out West, Sarah Palin country, I grew up in Wyoming on a farm ranch out there, not political. I was able to go to Ivy League schools in New York, and for the next seven, eight years, while I was in grad school and undergrad, I was suddenly, very politely, told that I was a racist, that I was a sexist, that I was a homophobe, that when I was religious, I was stupid and bigoted and close-minded.
DEREKAnd, you know, they didn't use those words at me, but any halfway intelligent person understands when the so-called, quote, sophisticated crowd, which I guess I'm part of now, but, you know, says in a very polite way, you know, it's the old Southern phrase, oh bless your heart. (laugh) You know exactly what that means. That's like you're an idiot, you're stupid.
DEREKAnd what's happening with Trump's people, I'm not a Trump supporter, I'm a Libertarian, but completely understand it, and I have to say I am 90 percent in support of his people being upset, and it doesn't matter me -- it doesn't matter to me if somebody uses the B-word. It doesn't matter. But when the other side, and I'll admit I'm a little bit biased thinking that this whole incivility stuff really got its -- it's always been around, but I look back to -- I'm old enough, I look back at the Bork hearings when you had a wonderful man, a very well-respected man, he was completely accepted by the elites and everybody and the -- I call them the chardonnay and cheese crowd in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., who sit around, and they act like they're sophisticated and open-minded when really they're the most close-minded people around.
MCGINTYAll right, so you think it got its start with the Bork hearings. I don't know if you want to go back that far or back even farther, Deborah Tannen.
TANNENWell, I will say something about -- you mentioned that the -- some of these ways that people in the Senate and the House address each other seems respectful. There's been so much talk about how there's more partisanship, and it's really getting -- stopping anything from getting done. In 1996, there were 14 of the most respected, most experienced, most thoughtful senators voluntarily quit. It was unprecedented.
TANNENAnd Norm Ornstein collected essays by all of them and then pointed out that a theme that ran through all of their comments were that they thought they couldn't get anything done anymore, that the level of partisanship had become so rancorous and so toxic that the government wasn't working anymore. And I think that was the beginning of something that's gotten -- only gotten worse. So I don't think any of us are talking only about words. We're all talking about underlying ways of portraying others that are actually affecting actions, and we're not just talking about words.
MCGINTYAnd I guess we would say, Derek, it doesn't know an ideology. Both sides can be just as incivil (sic). Jim, go ahead, Jim Rutenberg.
RUTENBERGYou know, but this gets to something that I do think sometimes people will tsk-tsk at other people's speech to shut it down, and I think that, sure, and a lot of the grievances that that gentleman just aired are fair. The thing is when the grievances take over the politics, and it's all about the grievances, and then it becomes insulting, there's a point where just insulting, uncivil talk doesn't lead to solutions, it doesn't lead to consensus, it only kind of -- it's destructive.
RUTENBERGAnd I think that's the point of this conversation. It's not, oh, wouldn't it be nice if people were nicer. It's when you are, you know, insulting the people you're arguing with, where -- how are you going to move forward from that. So I think that's the point here is not to, you know, all be sort of in Sunday school when we're having these discussions. I think it's just, when does it cross the line of being not just not constructive but actually just destructive.
TANNENIf I could just add real quickly...
LIUWhen I think about the civil rights movement...
MCGINTYLet me let Eric get in, and then Deborah.
TANNENOh yeah, sure, of course.
MCGINTYGo ahead, Eric.
RUTENBERGYou know, if you think about the history of the civil rights movement and, you know, the last caller talking about the Southernisms like bless your heart and, you know, there was a great deal of courtesy and civility, you know, during the debates in the United States Congress, you know, about civil rights legislation, but the reality of life on the ground, particularly in the South and not only in the South, was that there was deeply entrenched racism toward African-Americans that was state sanctioned and state propagated.
RUTENBERGAnd in the face of that, some of the tactics that civil rights activists had to use were decidedly impolite, were challenging the status quo both in substance and in tone, and I think, you know, many movements today, you know, what the last caller had to say about the Trump movement, you know, I actually understand here. The point is not that they revel in coarse language but the point is that they feel that the real coarseness is the way that a system has been stacked economically and culturally, perhaps, against them for many decades by a set of elites, and the only way that they can get heard, they feel, is to, you know, is to use precisely the language that elites don't want to hear or use.
RUTENBERGAnd, you know, I respect that, actually. I think there is a measure of that that is important in challenging the insularity of elites, and heck, you think about one of the heroes of the civil rights movement, when John Lewis, you know, just a few months ago led a sit-in in the House of Representatives because the House was refusing to move on any kind of gun responsibility legislation, you know, the first critique of him coming from the Republicans in control of the House was that this was against decorum, and this was uncivil, and this was, you know, against the general order of the House of Representatives.
RUTENBERGAnd I think his underlying point and that of the other protestors among members of Congress was that what is truly unconscionable is the inaction of this body, not our sitting in here in violation of decorum.
MCGINTYI'm Derek McGinty, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. That was Eric Liu, founder and CEO of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute for Citizenship and American Identity Program. Deborah Tanne, you wanted to make a point.
TANNENYeah, just real quickly, there's a way that the -- that what we're talking about as vitriolic rhetoric actually gets in the way of focus on real action as we've all been talking about. If there's a fight outside your window, you run to the window to find out what's going on. If there's a fight outside your window every night, you shut that window and try and shut it out. And that is what's happening with many people in terms of the public discourse. They are so offended by the name-calling and the venom in the -- that they are shutting it out.
MCGINTYWell, it's depressing. You know, it makes you feel like you're part of this crazy society where nothing's going to get done, so you don't want to hear it after a while.
DAHNKEYeah, not only do you not want to hear it, but you don't want to be a part of it, and I think we're losing some of our best and brightest, who no longer consider public service. In fact that phrase public service is disappearing form our vocabulary because we don't want to get involved in that, we don't want to put our families through that, and so we're really setting ourselves up to get more of the same because those are the only people who are going to be willing to jump in the game.
MCGINTYCassandra Dahnke, we've spent much of this hour talking about the problem and then expanding on what's gone wrong. Do you have any ideas as to how we fix it?
DAHNKEI do. I think that we have to actually find our voice, just -- and put a value on civility. I think we have to practice the skills, I think we have to teach the skills, and the Institute is set up as a membership-based organization, so we can say there's this many people who count because a survey each year is not going to be enough to convince elected officials or anybody else that those who want civility are in the majority, not in the minority.
MCGINTYDeborah Tannen, same question.
TANNENI think it starts with our own lives, as well as our consumption of media. So don't listen, shut off the TV if it's vitriolic, and stand up to each other. If you hear someone, and I've actually had this happen on the train, and suddenly someone starts screaming at a young man because he's talking on his cell phone, and it was not the cell phone talk that was bothering me but this other person screaming at him, I didn't speak up because I was afraid he'd turn on me. Well, that was cowardly.
TANNENI think we all do need to speak up when we overhear others demonizing and venom -- spewing venom in situations that they shouldn't.
LIUYou know, I'm recalling a billboard I once saw by this completely congested highway. Traffic was not moving at all, and the billboard, I think it was for some bike-sharing program or something, but it said, you're not stuck in traffic, you are traffic. And I think there's a, you know, a way in which that message is a bit relevant here. You know, we're not stuck in uncivil, coarse political culture, we are that. And I think society really does become how you behave.
LIUEach of us is capable of setting off a contagion of a different way of talking, a different way, more importantly, of hearing and listening and seeing. And, you know, we can attend to the deep, actual differences and arguments that we must attend to, and we can and must attend to the deep divisions of power in this country, but we can do so in a way that rehumanizes each other, and that is setting off a contagion that I think is -- you know, can heal our politics.
MCGINTYJim Rutenberg, we've got 15 seconds for you.
RUTENBERGI think that we're lurching our way there. Conversations like this one and I think social media kind of management realizing, you know, where -- trying to find the line, as well, in negotiations with their own communities of users. I think we're going to get there, it's just going to be in fits and starts.
MCGINTYFits and starts. We'll end on that optimistic note. Jim Rutenberg is media columnist for The New York Times, former chief political correspondent for The Times Magazine. Also at the studio in Seattle, Washington, Eric Liu, founder and CEO of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program. He's got a book coming out, it's called "You're More Powerful Than You Think." Here in the studio with me, Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. She's written a lot of books, "The Argument Culture" is one of them, most recently, "You Were Always Mom's Favorite." Cassandra Dahnke is co-founder of the Institute for Civility in Government, which is a nonpartisan Texas-based group that stages civility workshops nationwide. Thanks to all four of you, great, very civil conversation here on the Diane Rehm Show.