Thursday, June 15, 2017

Words Matter
If you want to use this shooting as a platform for toning down the hateful rhetoric, speak to your allies not your opponents or you are just replicating the problem.

The Hill reported that Representative Chris Collins spoke out on the day of the shooting against anti-Trump rhetoric.
"I can only hope that the Democrats do tone down the rhetoric," Collins told WBEN. "The rhetoric has been outrageous ... the finger-pointing, just the tone and the angst and the anger directed at Donald Trump, his supporters." 
Collins said that it was inevitable someone was going to act based on the "rhetoric" toward President Trump and the GOP. 
"You know, some people react to things like that. They get angry as well. And then you fuel the fires," said Collins, who is among the most vocal Trump backers on Capitol Hill. 
A police spokeswoman said the shooter was in the hospital after being shot by police. Collins said Democrats should take the attack as a "wake-up call."
"Maybe this is a wake-up call. I'm not saying it will be," Collins continued. "But let's hope we could disagree on a more polite, conversational basis and not do things like what they did at my office a couple weeks ago." 
Protesters held a "die-in" at Collins's office last week to protest the GOP efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Collins said the move went "too far." 
"I can only hope maybe there's something here that would say: Let's tone down the rhetoric. We can disagree politically but we can be polite," Collins said. "It's gone too far."
My first reaction to this was astonishment, given the far more extreme hatred regularly directed toward President Obama.

But then I thought both my response and Representative Collin's initial response are not only unproductive, but even worse: they are dishonest because they are unproductive in a way that assumes only the other side is responsible for polarization gone wild.

Both sides can make a case that the other side started it or has been more extreme or less reasonable, because that case already make sense within our own echo chambers.

But, if we want to use this shooting as a platform for toning down the hateful rhetoric, we all need to speak to our allies not our opponents or we are just replicating the problem. 

If we exploit this tragedy to suggest to voters that 'this is evidence that the other side is as hateful as we have been saying all along' than we are not interested in toning down the hateful rhetoric: we have just ratcheted it up even more.

And this is about a lot more than being more polite, though that is a very good place to start. Representative Collins could have made his comments with perfect manners, but like my own response, that does not make them any more productive or less dishonest and harmful.

Civility starts with reciprocity and a recognition that even when we disagree, we share a goal: problem-solving based on achieving agreements. 

In that spirit, civility requires us to choose words, from among the myriad options, that express our meaning in a way that is designed to increase the possibility that other sides will see the reasonableness of our position and agreements become easier to achieve.

Choosing words designed to hurt or marginalize or ridicule, words that paint an inaccurate picture on purpose, words that seek to ramp up anger and fear, words that distract and mislead and demonize...these are all lacking in civility, a threat to democracy, and ways of communicating that we should all stand against if we can stand united on anything.

Civility is not censorship. It does mean we cannot expect a positive outcome when we simply blurting out the first thing that comes to mind or cultivating a habit of not listening and man-splaining or white-splaining. It does require us to think first and to consider other's perspectives, particularly those who see the world differently than we do...because this is what we need to do to communicate and deliberate and problem solve.

Civility is not censorship, but civility does require us to share a desire to base decisions on the best available data. Sure, we can disagree on the best data. But we should also be able to agree that entirely fact-free positions designed to confuse and seed chaos, while these might seem to benefit some elites in the short term, hurt us all in the long term and must be discouraged. Not silenced (not censorship), but repudiated. Demonstrated to be wrong.

Similarly, civility concerns that drive communities to create safe places for difficult dialogues are not code for conservative views are not welcome. Sometimes words and events traumatize and it is not unreasonable to create spaces where even greater care, even more attention to civility and kindness and listening, is prioritized.

Political correctness that silences a perspective pre-emptively (like in a campus speech code or trigger warnings on syllabi) is not civility; claims that any perspective we do not like can be dismissed without debate as 'political correctness is not civility. 

When some make it their mission to attack and ridicule anyone who uses the wrong word, rather than join them in a conversation about civility and problem solving as potential (and future) allies, they create the otherwise imaginary PC monster of legend and this is uncivil; when others use an anecdote about the PC monster to justify their failure to choose their words carefully, their failure to enter debate with a shared goal of achieving agreements to solve problems, their failure to be polite and respectful and kind this is deeply uncivil.


  1. Thanks for this post Bill -this makes perfect sense to me. Of course, it is much harder to put into practice, but our success at democracy depends on all of us making the effort. It is seductive to cast blame (and to feel superior as a result), but we are all losers in the end.

  2. You are, of course, correct. It is tough. It is tough to find ways to avoid this trap and on top of that we need to both do this and continue to effectively countervail those peddling hateful policies, role models, and ways of thinking.