Civility is back in vogue — for now.
You may remember when “civil discourse” first burst into the national conversation. It was after the Jan. 8, 2011, mass shooting here. In his initial response, then-Sheriff Clarence Dupnik blamed the excessive political rhetoric of the time. And several groups formed afterward to promote more respectful political debate.
It turned out that was a paradoxical outcome of the shootings. Overheated political rhetoric was occurring then but played no clear role in the shooting. Jared Lee Loughner, the shooter, was politically aware in a twisted way, but basically was a guy with a severe, untreated mental illness that drove a wedge between him and reality.
“It wasn’t partisan politics,” said former U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, who was shot by Loughner. “It wasn’t that at all. It was a young man who was seriously mentally ill who didn’t get treatment who decided to go on a rampage.”
And yet, the shooting did occur in an atmosphere like today’s — of overwrought political passion. Barber and his family formed one entity to address the problem: the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding. It turned to addressing issues of cyberbullying and mental-health first aid. Among the other entities that formed was the National Institute for Civil Discourse, based at the University of Arizona but with offices in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.
Now those entities are being called into action again, after the shootings last week targeting Republican members of Congress on a baseball field in Virginia. That shooting, it appears, really was caused by an angry man pursuing political grievances against the opposition — in his case, that meant shooting at Republicans.
I asked the executive director of the national institute, Carolyn Lukensmeyer, if we’re really as uncivil now as people are saying. She said, essentially, yes, and people are sick of it. In a recent national poll, 75 percent of those surveyed said incivility had reached crisis levels, and 59 percent said they had stopped paying attention to politics because of it.
“What’s really different this cycle, is eight months after the presidential election, voters who voted for one candidate or for the other are vilifying and expressing vitriol for each other,” she said. “The last time that level of emotion and anger of one group of voters toward another was in Reconstruction.”
Meaning, after the Civil War. So, yes, it’s bad, and there is much responsibility to be shared for the state of things.
There has been increasing violence from people on the political left over the last year or so. Last week’s shootings came after attacks on Trump supporters at rallies in San Jose, California, and Chicago last year as well as some violence on campuses perpetrated mostly by so-called Antifa (or anti-fascist) groups. You could also include last year’s murders of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
This upsurge in violence from the left came after years of occasional, often lone-wolf violence by right-wing extremists, many of them white supremacists or anti-government activists. In a report this year, the Anti-Defamation League counted 150 violent acts or plots by right-wing extremists over the last 25 years. Most of them were quickly forgotten, like the deadly 2008 attack on a Unitarian church in Knoxville, Tennessee, by a man who wanted to kill liberals.
In a country where a well-known radio talk-show host published a book called “Liberalism is a Mental Disorder,” it’s not hard to figure out where that shooter got his anger.
Then came Trump. He campaigned on an explicit platform of “political incorrectness.” In other words, one of his top selling points was violating norms by saying what his supporters considered rough truths, even if they offended. He encouraged supporters to attack protesters at rallies. This rough talk helped him get elected while inspiring disgust on the part of his opponents, myself included.
With the polarizing Trump in the White House, we haven’t been able to move past the dynamic he unleashed yet, so we remain in a taut, dangerous moment. No wonder people are touchy.
And some are taking advantage of the situation, demanding civility when what they really want is silence. Take this from Fox News commentator Jeannine Pirro on Friday: “What does it mean when you resist? It means you fight. The word ‘resist’ conjures up an image of something rather violent.”
So from her point of view, if you attempt to resist President Trump, you’re being uncivil or potentially inciting violence. That’s one way of making your opponents shut up.
Or take a more local example. Last month, C.J. Karamargin wrote an op-ed in this paper calling for renewed civility in our political discourse. Karamargin, a friend and former colleague of mine, is in a unique position to talk about the issue, because he was communications director for then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat, when she was shot, and now he is district director for Rep. Martha McSally, a Republican.
A Tucson man was arrested last month for making threats of violence against McSally, which prompted C.J.’s piece. I agree with much of the agree-to-disagree spirit he expressed, but then was stopped short by this sentence: “So far this year — with over 17 months till the next election — nearly a half million dollars has already been spent by outside groups on television, radio and digital ads against Congresswoman McSally with the sole purpose of inflaming tensions in the district.”
“The sole purpose of inflaming tensions”? Wait a minute. McSally took a profanely strong stand in favor of the American Health Care Act — “let’s get this f—ing thing done,” she said to fellow members — which the Congressional Budget Office says would take away health care from more than 20 million Americans. When you take a stand like that, who is to blame for inflaming opinion? Is it McSally, or the people who want to preserve that health insurance?
Of course, there are better and worse ways to debate legitimate differences on the issues. The obvious, top guideline is to never, ever use, threaten to use or excuse violence. Beyond that, our leaders should shun those who do.
Another, rather obvious guideline, though one I haven’t always followed: Don’t make ad hominem attacks by calling people names or otherwise demeaning them personally. Just fight over the issues.
But here’s a less-apparent practice that Lukensmeyer is trying to spread and we might want to try: “Listening to understand rather than listening to debate or influence.”
That actually takes some work for those of us who have ingrained habits of political debate.
“Millions of people in society don’t feel heard,” Lukensmeyer said. “When they don’t feel heard, they get more aggressive about being heard.”